The International Olympic Committee's Dec. 4 announcement banning the Russian Olympic team from the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, came at the end of a lengthy investigation into allegations of a systematic state-run doping program in Russia. The ban will not bar Russian athletes from competing in the games outright. Those who pass drug screenings and are approved by an IOC panel will be allowed to compete in Pyeongchang, but not as official representatives of their country. So even if one wins a gold medal, the Russian flag will not be lofted over the winner's podium, and the Russian national anthem will not be played.
The penalties, unprecedented in Olympics history, stemmed from a scandal that emerged after the previous Winter Olympics, held in Sochi, Russia. Agents of Russia's intelligence agency were alleged in a report by the World Anti-Doping Agency to have helped alter urine samples handed in by Russian athletes in an elaborate scheme to bypass drug detection protocols. The annals of Olympic history can answer the question of why Russia would go to such lengths to game the system. Athletic achievement on the international stage is a point of national pride for the countries competing in the Olympics. The games have long served a role as a proxy battle between competing ideologies, especially during the height of the Cold War. And in Russia, one of President Vladimir Putin's strategies for maintaining control of a more restive population is through an appeal to nationalism. Nothing stokes nationalistic fervor quite like watching a countryman accepting an Olympic gold medal as the national anthem swells in the background.
Russian officials continue to deny the existence of a state-sponsored program to evade global anti-doping conventions. But under the preponderance of a growing mountain of evidence, and with the Pyeongchang Games mere weeks away, the IOC took action.
It is against this backdrop that I wanted to further discuss a film that my colleague Tolga Ozyurtcu, a fellow contributor to the Geopolitics of Sports column, recommended last week: the award-winning documentary "Icarus." It was, he wrote, "one of the better documentaries of the century and one of the best sports films of our time." The cinematic qualities on display in "Icarus" are reason enough to warrant further discussion of this fascinating work. But to me the film possesses importance that goes beyond style or substance and into the personal realm.
Director Bryan Fogel started the project with a rather modest ambition: determine whether contemporary measures used to detect drug cheats in amateur athletics were actually effective. He would do this by taking an empirical approach. He planned to use supplemental testosterone and human growth hormone himself, substances that are, with some therapeutic exceptions, banned for use in amateur athletics, as he trained for cycling events. In seeking information regarding the testing protocols that he might face at the competitions he would enter, the filmmaker came into contact with Grigory Rodchenkov, then the head of Russia’s sole accredited anti-doping laboratory. As their collaboration on Fogel's project grew, the two in short order became friends. At this point, however, stories began to break in the news media about the existence of a vast, state-sponsored doping program in Russia. Rodchenkov, it turns out, played a central role in the doping effort, and his willingness to blow the whistle on the Russian state's activities brought the scandal to the fore.
As the film documents, in November 2015, Rodchenkov sought refuge in the United States in the belief that it was no longer safe for him to stay in Russia. Although he might have been forgiven for abandoning his film project given the uncertainties of the situation, it is to Fogel's credit that he seems never to have flinched, and he helped Rodchenkov move to Los Angeles. As the two watched television one evening, they learned that former Russian Anti-Doping Agency Executive Director Nikita Kamaev had been found dead the previous day, the victim of an apparent heart attack. Rodchenkov, who had been a longtime friend of Kamaev, recalled that he had been planning to write a book on doping in his country. "It's dangerous to write book in Russia," Rodchenkov said.
In this moment, watching "Icarus" became a very personal experience to me. On Nov. 22, 2015, an unexpected email proposal showed up in my inbox. The source of the communication was none other than Nikita Kamaev. The content was flattering even if the English was a bit rough:
"I am writing to you because you are a reputable, widely known person in the field of sports science and anti-doping issues.
"I wanted to write a book about the true story of sport pharmacology and doping in Russia since in 1987 while being a young scientist began working in secret lab in USSR Institute of Sports Medicine.
"Recent roughhouse in the field of anti-doping prompted me to write the memories associated with both my scientific studies and work in RUSADA from 2010.
"I have the information and facts that have never been published."
Kamaev then asked whether I would be interested in working with him as a partner on the book. My sense is that he was hoping for a lucrative contract from a major Western publisher, and that he therefore needed a co-author who would be taken seriously and who could write well in English.
Although I didn't know so at the time, at least two other individuals were also contacted on the matter — a British journalist named David Walsh and noted Danish scholar Verner Moller (who happens to be a good friend of mine). In any event, I thought hard about how to respond to Kamaev. On the positive side, the timing of the request seemed in some ways fortuitous. I'd recently received tenure at my university and I was in the midst of trying to figure out my next major project. And the type of insider access that Kamaev was offering seemed beyond tantalizing. But the logistical and translation requirements would be difficult and expensive. Moreover, our twin boys were only 6 at the time, and I didn't relish the thought of extended time away from home. I also wondered how I could ever figure out whom or what to trust on the matter. It would be easy, I concluded, to get in over my head. And so in the end, I decided against the project.
Three months later, Kamaev would be dead.
I should say at this point that no hard evidence connects the event to the man's work on his book. "Icarus" nevertheless raises strong questions and makes crystal clear that something very rotten existed in the Russian sport system.