For five years, the sporting world has been gripped by Russian manipulation of the anti-doping system. Now new evidence suggests the whistleblower who went into a witness protection program during the scandal may not have been entirely truthful.
Even today, more than five years after the end of her career, Olga Zaitseva says she doesn’t drink from water bottles if they have already been opened. Even when she visits friends, she says she always has a new one brought to her. "It’s an old habit,” she admits, before laughing softly.
Zaitseva, 42, has retained the quirk from her past life. The Russian with blonde curls and narrow eyes was once one of the world’s best biathletes, an Olympic champion. Her success put her in the near-constant sights of doping-control officers.
She took special precautions to make sure that she never consumed anything that was prohibited. "As an athlete, I was responsible for what went into my body, which is why I always carried my own water bottles with me,” she says. "That way I could make sure that no one slipped anything into it.” When Zaitseva ended her career in January 2015, after hundreds of competitions and countless doping tests, she was considered a clean athlete.
Banned for Life
In the coming days, three judges at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland, will determine whether that claim still holds true. In 2017, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned the Russian athlete for life over violations of anti-doping regulations. The IOC claimed Zaitseva had profited from a system of fraud that concealed massive Russian doping at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi at the behest of the government.
Zaitseva says she has "never, ever, ever, ever, ever” doped in her life, "and if I have to, I will gladly repeat that a million times.” Zaitseva appealed the decision together with two other female athletes who were also banned by the IOC.
On the surface, the proceedings seem like just another chapter in the endless Russian doping scandal that has gripped the sporting world for more than five years now. But the credibility of the most important key witness to the mass fraud is on the line, and if the court sides with the Russian athletes, it could trigger a domino effect, given that other cases are still pending. The three biathletes also filed a $30-million (27-million-euro) lawsuit in New York against Russia’s former anti-doping laboratory director, who lives in hiding in the United States. In their suit, they claim they are the victims of defamation and that their names, victories and honors have been vilified for no reason.
Several pieces of evidence in the files from the Swiss proceedings that DER SPIEGEL has viewed in recent weeks seem not only to substantiate Zaitseva’s claims of innocence, they also appear to raise questions about the overall credibility of the investigation into the Sochi conspiracy and whether too much faith was placed in the account provided by the whistleblower in the scandal.
An Old Conflict Flares Up Again
The case has long been a political issue. In recent years, forensic scientists and special investigators have been poring over urine samples and scientific evaluations in hopes of a resolution, and parliaments and heads of state have either condemned or categorically denied Russia’s systemic fraud. It has rekindled a conflict between East and West and between hopelessly overburdened sporting associations.
What is certain is that many Russian athletes have been cheating the system. Russia’s track and field federation has been suspended from international competitions since 2015. In 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), recommended the Russian flag and national anthem be banned from the Olympic Games and other major events for four years in response to the tricks used by Moscow in its efforts to hinder the investigation into the doping scandal.
This includes events that allegedly took place in Sochi. What is known about them is largely attributable to the descriptions and records of a key witness: Grigory Rodchenkov, 61. The chemist headed Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory until 2015, when he moved to the United States. There, he shared his account of what allegedly happened in Sochi with the New York Times. In his version of events, the urine of Russian medal candidates contaminated with banned substances at the Winter Games were secretly swapped with clean urine, presumably with the help of Russia’s secret service, the FSB. Rodchenkov has led such an exuberant life that Netflix even made the two-hour documentary film "Icarus” about it.
WADA appointed a special investigator, and subsequent analyses of Russian urine samples from Sochi revealed indications of urine tampering. Ultimately, the IOC felt the circumstantial evidence was strong enough to sanction the athletes. In several affidavits, Rodchenkov provided the names of athletes who were allegedly doped in Sochi and presented lists of competitors who, he claimed, were provided with protection by the Sports Ministry. Three years ago, this led the IOC to sanction 43 athletes and remove them from the results lists of the Sochi Olympics.
Almost all of those cases were appealed, and 28 were successful in getting the decision overturned. The decisions to reverse the sanctions were made due to insufficient evidence. Three rulings are still pending - the one for Zaitseva and the other two biathletes.
A "Made-Up Story”
Zaitseva claims that Rodchenkov’s portrayal of events is a "made-up story.” In a video call from Moscow, she says she has never seen him in her life. So why does he mention her explicitly in documents, in one case even describing a meeting with her? "I have no explanation for all these lies,” Zaitseva says, "except that he must be crazy.”
Rodchenkov claims that Zaitseva doped using EPO, a blood booster, and that, like many Russian medal candidates, she was given what was called the "Duchess cocktail,” a mixture of three anabolic steroids.
"None of it is true," says Zaitseva.
Wolfgang Pichler also believes the story about "this cocktail is total rubbish.” The Bavarian is considered one of the world’s best biathlon coaches and known as a champion of doping-free sports. After German reunification, he campaigned against the German Ski Association accepting former East German coaches who had been suspected of involvement in the regime’s doping programs. In 2009, he also demanded the exclusion of Russian biathletes from the Olympic Games following doping revelations. Then he became Russia’s head coach in 2011, and later took over a five-person training group that included Zaitseva.
The IOC banned 43 athletes because it suspected them of participation in the doping system at Sochi. Of those decisions, 28 have since been appealed and reversed at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Meanwhile, bans remain in place for 11 athletes and three appeals are still ongoing.
The main training center was set up in Pichler’s hometown of Ruhpolding. Most of the other training camps also took place in Europe. "We were almost entirely under WADA’s control,” Pichler says. He also took blood from his charges each day of training to determine stress limits. If one of his charges had doped, he says he would have noticed.
But what about the cocktail? "A pipe dream,” Pichler claims. The coach says he said the very same thing during a hearing in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Four doping samples were taken from Zaitseva at Sochi – three urine and one blood. During follow-up analyses, investigators argued that the salt concentration in a urine sample was too high.
Natural Cause Could not Be Ruled Out
But experts believed that wasn’t enough to suggest the sample had been tampered with. Two expert opinions, including one from a renowned New York institute, were submitted during the Lausanne proceedings. Both stated that a natural cause for Zaitseva's salt value could not be ruled out. Zaitseva says she has always had a high-sodium diet, with lots of smoked salmon and red caviar, which were also served at the cafeteria in the Olympic Village.
The IOC re-examined Zaitseva’s blood sample, with negative results. If Zaitseva had cheated, they ought to have found traces of EPO- or anabolic doping. Unlike the urine samples, the blood samples at the Olympics were never secretly swapped.
Rodchenkov's statements about Zaitseva reach beyond Sochi. He claims, for example, that the biathlete ended her career at the end of 2014 by order of the Sports Ministry, because her blood values hadn’t normalized. Zaitseva did in fact announce her resignation in January 2015. "I was pregnant,” she says, nothing else. Her second son was born that October.
The test results from another urine sample the IOC introduced as evidence in the proceedings against Zaitseva also fall into this context. The sample is from October 2014 and contains DNA from two people – Zatiseva’s and, it would later be revealed, from a man. The IOC investigators considered this to be further evidence of fraud.
Zaitseva says she was shocked when she found out about it. "How do you think it feels to have to tell your husband that male DNA was found in your urine? That story could have destroyed my family.” It took years to identify the foreign DNA. According to the forensic reports viewed by DER SPIEGEL, it came from Zaitseva’s husband. They say the couple likely had sex shortly before the doping test.
"It’s Like Getting Accused of Murder”
Zaitseva says yes, she was trying to get pregnant at the time. She says the proceedings destroyed her reputation. "It’s like getting accused of murder, even though you haven’t hurt anyone,” she says.
She fought back, along with the other biathletes who had been accused of doping, and filed a lawsuit against Rodchenkov in New York. Mikhail Prokhorov, a man as glamorous as he is influential, is covering some of the costs of the women’s suit. The Russian billionaire is the former president of the Russian Biathlon Association and was the owner of the Brooklyn Nets NBA basketball team, among others.
The proceedings in the New York case are currently in recess. Both sides have agreed to wait for the outcome of the CAS ruling. The Russian side is counting on a reversal of the sanctions in Lausanne, which they believe could shift the lawsuit in the U.S. in their favor.
Jim Walden, the New York lawyer representing Rodchenkov, views the situation altogether differently, of course. "This lawsuit by the Russians has zero chance of surviving, whether CAS upholds the findings of doping or not,” says Walden, 54.
Walden is speaking on behalf of the whistleblower, who has gone underground. Rodchenkov has been placed in the American witness protection program out of fear of Russian retaliation. "They have tried to kill him,” says Walden, "and now they are levelling these allegations – they know full well that they are actually acting like gangsters.”
In contrast to his home country, the whistleblower is venerated in the U.S., with a bill called the "Rodchenkov Act” even bearing his name. If passed, it would allow the American authorities to conduct criminal prosecution of doping cases abroad. The bill has already been approved by the U.S. House of Representatives.
The initiative would also make the U.S. more independent of WADA, which many experts feel acted too late and too weakly in the Russian case. The fact that the White House last week raised the question of whether it might cut its funding of WADA fits in neatly with that. The U.S. currently pays $2.7 million into WADA’s budget.
The global fight against doping could be facing a tectonic shift. If Rodchenkov’s story inspires the U.S. to become the world doping police, that would be ironic, given how the U.S. has often looked the other way when suspicions have arisen about its own athletes.
The Russians are now expecting proof that Rodchenkov that is still alive, because they claim they’ve found inconsistencies. In the Lausanne proceedings, the IOC had originally submitted nine affidavits from Rodchenkov. But the defense claims that the documents probably weren’t signed by Rodchenkov personally. Several expert opinions viewed by DER SPIEGEL seem to corroborate that suspicion.
One digital-forensic report concluded that the same photo file of Rodchenkov's signature was inserted in two different affidavits. The other seven were signed by hand – that, at least, is the conclusion of two purportedly independent experts – but probably not in Rodchenkov’s handwriting.
Are these accusations by the Russians mere distractions? When the defense expressed doubts about the authenticity of the signatures on the first day of the hearings in front of the CAS in March, the IOC presented a new affidavit from Rodchenkov within 24 hours. But it didn’t mention how the signatures on the other documents were obtained. He merely confirmed the statements made in them.
Asked about the inconsistencies, Jim Walden shakes his head with a smile. "It’s silly,” he says. "Mr. Rodchenkov gave us authority to attach an electronic signature to the documents. So, the allegation that the affidavits are forged is Russian silliness. In Russia, truth is relative.”