The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) made headlines in the sporting world after overturning the lifetime bans imposed on three Russian biathletes for alleged wrongdoing at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. While two of the athletes – Yana Romanova and Olga Vilukhina – were cleared of all charges on the grounds of insufficient evidence, Olga Zaitseva lost her individual appeal against doping, but still had her lifetime ban revoked.
The judgement is significant not just for the three named athletes and those affected by the medals which now will be reinstated, but also for the prominent whistleblower upon whose testimony they were first accused. Grigory Rodchenkov was once the head of Russia’s anti-doping agency and the purported mastermind behind their gaming of the system but has since turned whistleblower to expose the country’s doping program. Vilified in Russia and revered in the USA, it’s now unclear where the real Rodchenkov stands between these polar opposite perceptions.
Vindication at last
Alongside teammate Yekaterina Shumilova, the trio of athletes claimed the silver medal in a relay skiing event at the Sochi Games, only for their achievements to be called into question by Rodchenkov. After defecting from Russia and emigrating to the United States, Rodchenkov revealed that he had been the protagonist behind a nationwide doping agenda through which Moscow hoped to reinstate pride in the country after a disappointing showing in Vancouver four years previously.
In his written testimony, Rodchenkov alleged that Sochi officials had colluded with agents from the FSB to remove incriminating urine samples from the testing lab and replace them with clean alternatives. Romanov, Vilukhina and Zaitseva were all implicated by name, having supposedly taken the blood-booster EPO and a specially crafted mixture of performance-enhancing drugs known as the “Duchess Cocktail”, something which Rodchenkov himself claims to have invented.
In all, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) sanctioned 43 athletes on the strength of Rodchenkov’s testimony, 28 of which were later repealed. With the most recent CAS ruling – and the final pending one from those Games – that figure has swelled to 31, or 72% of those originally accused of wrongdoing. Clearly, CAS does not believe that Rodchenkov should now be taken at his word, or that the evidence put forth is strong enough to produce a guilty verdict.
Unsubstantiated and inconsistent
In reaching their decision, a panel of CAS arbitrators concluded that none of the accusations levelled against the biathletes could be confirmed to “comfortable satisfaction” and thus rescinded the bans. In particular, they found that Rodchenkov’s assertion that the high concentration of salt in the athletes’ urine samples was indicative of tampering was unsubstantiated conjecture.
While Zaitseva was found guilty of the breach, she continues to maintain her innocence, pointing to the prevalence of high-sodium foods like red caviar and smoked salmon (both of which were on sale in the Sochi canteen) in her diet as a natural cause of the excess salt levels in her sample. Meanwhile, the single blood sample taken from Zaitseva – over which there has been no suggestion of chicanery – returned negative results for EPO and any of the so-called Duchess cocktail ingredients, further supporting her position.
There are even suspicions over the extent of Rodchenkov’s involvement in his own testimony. Handwriting specialists found that his signature was digitally duplicated on two of the eight affidavits submitted by his team, while the six others are thought to have probably been penned by someone else. When questioned on that discovery, his lawyer Jim Walden immediately produced a brand new document affirming all of the previous ones and bearing a fresh version of Rodchenkov’s signature – but this signature, too, was called into question by a leading handwriting experts from the UK and Germany.
More than meets the eye?
Amidst all this confusion, there do appear to be a few certainties: that Russia conducted a far-reaching campaign of athlete doping, that Rodchenkov was instrumental in implementing and obscuring it and that once his value to the Russian Federation ran out, he found fame as the anti-doping poster boy for the USA. But does that mean his word should now be trusted unconditionally in every circumstance?
In a case so characterized by controversy and inconsistency, it makes sense to take a step back and reassess the situation, as CAS have done here – especially when the careers and reputations for which professional athletes have fought so hard are at stake. For her part, Zaitseva has signaled her intent to never stop fighting to clear her name, while she and her two vindicated teammates have also filed a $30 million lawsuit against Rodchenkov for what they view as little more than uncorroborated slander. Whether that case bears a positive conclusion for the athletes remains to be seen, but the aspersions being heaped upon the star of Netflix documentary Icarus suggest that the whistleblower himself may also have had his wings singed by the very controversy that has made him (in)famous.