The Russian Affair, David Walsh. London, Simon & Schuster, 2020 £20/$25.99 :Russian Affair Part 2


bookcover.jpgThis is part 2 of The Russian Affair. Stuart Weir liked this book. The story is like a spy novel.

The Russian Affair, David Walsh. London, Simon & Schuster, 2020 £20

Russian Affair Part 2

"Basically, the question of a drug test's results has no meaning whatsoever...If a test is negative it only means that the pharmacological preparation was done correctly. If it is positive then the coach is an idiot".

Sergei Portugalov, of Medical Department, Russian Athletics Federation

Vitaly Stepanov was an idealistic young man who joined RUSADA, the Russian anti-doping agency, determined to play his part in making the world a better place and stamp out doping. Walsh's book, based on Stepanov's account of his time as a doping officer, gives chapter and verse on how the state-run campaign worked.

At one point the book quotes an email from Vitaly to WADA which explains how the system worked: "Russian athletes, with the help of their coaches, could control when they were tested. They took their doping products, calculated the clearance time and agreed to a test after that date".

How it worked from an athlete's perspective.

When Yuliya Stefanov made the elite Russian athletics team, the landscape changed:

"Yuliya could now compete dirty anywhere in Russia. If Rusada's testers showed up at a training camp or at a track meet, their testers would be given two lists: one showing the athletes they could test, the other showing those they couldn't test. Every two to three weeks, elite athletes had blood and urine analysed so that Portugalov and Melnikov knew when it was safe to allow their athletes to be tested". [Sergei Portugalov, of Medical Department, Russian Athletics Federation Alexei Melnikov, Senior Coach Russian Athletics].

"When they tested her [Yuliya] at the Nationals all she needed to do text Portugalov her sample number. Then she just had to get on with her day. She had entered a new world. When she left the doping control station, she pulled the pink copy of the doping control slip out of her pocket and texted her sample number to Portugalov".

If all else failed Yuliya could pay to make a bad sample "disappear". If the request was made before it was analysed, the price was 10,000 roubles (approximately $300). If the request was made after the analysis had been done, the cost was 30,000 roubles or $1,000.

Other precautions were recommended. "Now, as Portugalov reminded her, she was working with a professional. He restated rule number two: just do what you are told and everything will be good. Oh, and one more rule: make sure you always keep clean frozen urine in the freezer for unforeseen situations arising from unplanned encounters with non-Rusada doping controls".

When Yuliya was anxious about EPO..."'Don't worry,' said Mokhnev. 'And, by the way, it was Russian EPO you came up positive for. The Moscow lab can detect it a lot better than any other lab in the world. So again, don't worry, nobody else would have detected it. They detected it and you pay money and everything will be okay. Russian EPO is still the way to go'". [Vladimir Mokhnev, Yuliya's coach]


The Whereabouts system is a key to doping control with athletes required to specify where the testers can find them. Even this worked to the Russian authorities' advantage.

"The largest country in the world, with its very diverse topography, offered a natural habitat for the cheat. The IAAF sent a request to Rusada, for example, asking that a specified list of athletes be tested. Rusada got in touch with the national coach, Melnikov, and they then decided when each of those athletes would be tested. If the IAAF wanted a particular athlete tested at a particular time, they could be easily fobbed off. 'Sorry, that athlete lives in a closed city. Not possible We can get clearance but it will take more time'".

"The places athletes named on their whereabouts form weren't easily accessible. The athletes never went there. The doping control officers couldn't get there. All good. If, on the off chance, a tester showed up at the wrong place and at the wrong time, no one should panic. Most of Rusada's testers knew when to look the other way. If an uncooperative, non-Rusada tester showed up unannounced, the athlete had clean urine stored in the fridge for that kind of occasion".

It was a well-managed system:

"A week before Paris [2011 European Indoor Athletics Championships], Rusada tested everybody all over again.... Rusada would ensure all the doping athletes would actually be clean when they got to Paris. It was a silly procedure everybody went through before competing internationally she [Yuliya] was told. If you failed the away test, you would get tested again a day or two later, if you failed the second away test, you stayed home. Simple. Russia has its reputation to think of.

"To keep everyone happy, Russia offered up a regular supply of positives comprising those poor sacrificial lambs who weren't part of Melnikov's elite circle. Vulnerable souls not good enough make the national team but a perfect serving to sate the need for some positive tests from Russia".

The book reads like a piece of literary fiction, a thriller. Sadly it is a true story.

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