December 02, 2017

Doping, Bus Stops, and Journalists

Doping, Bus Stops, and Journalists
An excerpt from Rodchenko's diary.

Straight Dope 

In a damning report, the New York Times on Tuesday published an article based on the diaries of Grigory Rodchenko, the Russian chemist and anti-doping chief for the 2014 Sochi Games, showing that Rodchenko was “a foot soldier in a system that was controlled at the highest levels of the state.”

The 2014-2015 diary is full of both mundane (meals eaten, daily blood pressure) and incriminating (accounts of arguments with top officials) details that

provide a new level of detail about Russia’s elaborate cheating at the last Winter Games and the extent to which, he says, the nation’s government and Olympic officials were involved. 

Rodchenko fled to the US after he spent years aiding and abetting Russian athletes gain an edge by using banned substances, and his account shows that the doping system was carefully planned and supported at the top levels (the head of the sports program, Vitaly Mutko, who appears many times in Rodchenko's diary, lost his position but was promoted to Deputy Prime Minister).

Among other things, the chemist and his team cooked up 

a drug cocktail known among the officials as Duchess, a mixture of three anabolic steroids and Martini-brand vermouth. 

The scheme to evade detection by the IOC's anti-doping authorities, called "The Sochi Plan," was stunningly simple: the conspirators transported

from Moscow the hundreds of ounces of clean urine that top athletes had for months collected in baby food jars and old soda bottles

which was then, as a linked article shows with diagrams and photos, poured into empty sample bottles and passed through a hole in a wall at the testing facility, from an insecure storage room into a secure testing area. 

When during the 2014 games a top Russian athlete was nonetheless caught doping, Rodchenko was called on the carpet and a long fight ensued over whether Rodchenko should try to cover up the athlete's doping or if such an effort would reveal the full extent of the effort.

So far 19 Russian athletes have been disciplined for their involvement in "the Sochi plan" and over 100 Russian athletes were banned from the Rio summer games in 2016, and

a third of Russia’s 33 medals were awarded to athletes whose names appeared on a spreadsheet outlining the government’s doping plan.

The Russian government continues to deny wrongdoing, basically admitting that shenanigans went on, but that

Dr. Rodchenkov acted alone in tampering with more than 100 incriminating urine samples in Sochi, an act which has so far led the global officials to order Russia to return 11 Olympic medals.

The IOC does not accept Russia's version:

Following multiple investigative reports published last year, Russia’s coordinated cheating has been accepted as fact among top Olympic officials, in spite of a largely defiant response from Russian authorities that has grown fiercer in recent weeks.

And their decision is just around the corner:

Olympic officials will announce their decision on Dec. 5. If they do not bar Russia completely from the coming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, they are likely to keep all Russian emblems out of the Games: The Russian flag would not fly at the opening and closing ceremonies, Russian athletes would compete in neutral uniforms and the Russian anthem would not be played.


Russia criminally charged Rodchenkov with abuse of authority and indicated it would request his extradition. Authorities had previously seized his property in Moscow, where his family remains.

Stop Here

The above and other relentless streams of bad or difficult news about Russia leaves one yearning for things non-political, non-corrupt, and untainted. 

Sounds like a good time for bus stops! According to Calvert Journal, which is a great place to go to recharge your Russophilia, Christopher Herwig is back with a second book on Soviet Bus Stops:

For this latest book Herwig sought to find the most unusual bus stops in the deepest reaches of the countryside. And he did not disappoint: the bus stops here range from magnificently produced propaganda, celebrating the achievements of the Soviet state, to the patrioric (St George slaying the dragon in the village of Rostovanovskoye in Russia is well worth a gander), to the fantastically mundane that makes you ask — what is a giant lighbulb doing in the middle of the Russian countryside? 

Follow the link above to see some samples of the work. Or just go directly to the website of Fuel (do not pass Go) to get your copy.

Non-Reporting from Russia

A piece in Foreign Policy by Amie-Ferris Rotman provides some interesting perspective on what it means to be a foreign correspondent in Russia today. The situation, she reports, is dire indeed:

Contrary to common belief, it has been a long time since foreign journalists have been able to cultivate, gain, or develop Kremlin sources. This is largely because... it has been a long time since foreign journalists have been able to cultivate, gain, or develop Kremlin sources. And if we experienced any success at doing so now, we wouldn’t be here for much longer.

She notes how it has been impossible for Russia-based foreign correspondents to provide any reporting support for the Russia election tampering story, because no one will talk to foreign correspondents directly or even on background, and that is only going to get worse with the new Foreign Agent law.

Our work is closely monitored by the Russian government; it is no secret that our communications are tapped. We abide by an unwritten rulebook of self-censorship. Straying can and has meant ejection.

The atmosphere she invokes is not that different from what it was historically, during the Kremlinology era of the Cold War:

The Kremlin is a heavily fortified bastion of secrecy, both physically and symbolically. Russian authorities keep a tight lid on the information allowed out to the general population. The most journalists can do is sift through the same set of meager clues offered by state-run media about policymakers’ views

Add to that the fact that western editors have diminishing interest in stories out of Russia, and you have a reinforcing downward spiral in which less and less will be reported about Russia, and it will be less and less in touch with what is "really" going on.

But in the end, Rotman circles around to an interesting point of view about the election tampering story, and the conclusion of her article is quoted here in full:

But even if we were to gain access to the upper echelons of Russian government, there’s plenty of reason to doubt we would ever find a way to make all the pieces of the puzzle fit together into a single master plan. In recent weeks, independent Russian journalists have painstakingly tried to explain what the West, namely the U.S. media, has been consistently getting wrong about this story. The bottom line: The Russian government is a chaotic institution, not a streamlined machine. Putin is no arch strategist, but someone who acts on compulsion, and often at cross-purposes with himself.


And so it’s unlikely Putin ever signed off on a clear plan about how, and to what extent, to interfere in the U.S. election. The motley, continually expanding cast of Russian characters to appear in the scandal were almost certainly trying to impress the Kremlin, not acting on orders from it. A lot of guesswork has always gone into trying to figure out what Putin’s Kremlin wants — and that includes people with power, as well as foreign journalists.

The interpretation is interesting. Putin is Henry II, and Hilary Clinton is Thomas Becket, and the King of the Kremlin in 2015 voiced something like "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome Clinton?" And somewhere, in a St. Petersburg side street, a gaggle of programmers got to work...

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