Cheating. Intimidation. Murder. This is not your average lab story.

Cheating. Intimidation. Murder.

These aren’t words you associate with pathology laboratories. But the World Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation into state-sanctioned doping in Russia has shown that the Government intimidated lab staff into participating in widespread fraud.

The head of the anti-doping laboratory for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games was biochemist Grigory Rodchenkov. At the Kremlin’s behest he developed a cocktail of anabolic steroids which could be effectively masked from testing when dissolved in alcohol.  Rodchenkov, who has since fled Russia in fear for his life, has provided evidence of a culture of intimidation filtering all the way down from the President’s office. In this framework, the success of Russian athletes was to be ensured at all costs.

In the two years Rodchenkov’s staff prepared for the games, a Russian intelligence agent began to appear at the main Moscow laboratory. Staff were told he was there to protect them, but many felt threatened. He was particularly interested in the tamper-proof sample pots standard in world sports testing.

Several months before the Sochi games, this man pulled Rodchenkov aside and showed him one of the bottles. From all appearances it was intact, but the man’s colleagues had managed to break into it.

A detailed plan to hide the doping was devised. Athletes would ‘go clean’ before the games and provide urine samples . Upon being tested during the Games, they would snap pictures of their sample pots showing the unique code that would normally make samples anonymous. They would text this from the toilet to the Ministry for Sports and from there, to Rodchenkov.

During the Games, several thousand “tamper-proof” sample pots were broken into and urine was replaced with the older ‘clean’ samples. This would happen in the dead of night after the independent observers had left, and a secret hole in the lab wall has been found through which samples were smuggled in and out.

Following the games, Grigory was awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin. But when WADA named and shamed him in its report last year, the Russian government’s tune changed.

Two of Grigory’s colleagues turned up dead within weeks of each other and Grigory fled to Los Angeles. Once there, he turned into a songbird, providing WADA officials with more evidence than they’d ever dreamed of.

Russia has been largely dismissive about the allegations, painting themselves as the victims of a pre-Rio Games smear campaign.

It paints a depressing picture of international athletics. Russia is currently banned from international events, but have fielded an athletics team in hopes that the ban may be lifted.

But one thing these events do confirm is just how reliant we are on effective, accurate pathology. Not just to diagnose and treat illness, but to ensure a level playing field in an area that provides joy to millions of viewers around the world – not to mention generating millions in sponsorships.

And whilst it is all a bit depressing, try letting John Oliver add a little wry humour by allowing him to explain it all in the way that only John Oliver can….

article based on the New York Times article accessed 7th July 2016 : http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/13/sports/russia-doping-sochi-olympics-2014.html?mwrsm=Email&_r=0