Russia's Retaliation Against a Doping Whistleblower

A lawyer for Grigory Rodchenkov says Russia wants him to face justice at home.

Sportsmen train at a local stadium in the southern city of Stavropol in 2015 (Eduard Korniyenko / Reuters)

On December 11, 2017, Russian authorities filed drug-trafficking charges against Grigory Rodchenkov, the whistleblower who exposed Russia’s state-sponsored doping program. It was his testimony, and the series of investigations it launched, that ultimately got the Russian national team banned from next month’s Olympic Games in South Korea.

News of the charges against Rodchenkov was reported by state-owned Russian outlets the next day, but The Atlantic has since learned that the timing was seemingly not accidental. A lawyer for Rodchenkov believes Russian authorities are retaliating for his client’s disclosures by making it more difficult for him to remain in the United States, where he fled in 2015 on a tourist visa. The day Rodchenkov was charged in Russia also happened to be the day he met with U.S. immigration officials in hopes of securing a more permanent basis for remaining in the United States. His lawyer, Jim Walden, rejects the charges. “It’s Russia,”  Walden says. “They can make up whatever they want to make up.”(In response to repeated requests for comment, the office of the prosecutor that filed the charges demurred, asking for the request to be faxed.)

The charges could significantly undercut Rodchenkov’s immigration case, and if the immigration bid fails, it could put his life in danger. A Moscow court has issued a warrant for Rodchenkov’s arrest, and Russia is reportedly seeking his extradition. One Russian Olympic official has publicly called for Rodchenkov to be shot. Rodchenkov’s wife and children, who still live in Russia, have had their assets frozen, property seized, and their passports temporarily seized.

Rodchenkov ran the Russian anti-doping laboratory for a decade. He resigned after the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) accused Russia of numerous violations and recommended that Russian track and field athletes be banned from the Rio Summer Olympics. Shortly afterward, Rodchenkov left Russia in fear for his life. “Grigory came to the United States only after a friend of his from the Kremlin told him that the FSB is coming to kill him, that they were going to stage his suicide,” Walden told me.

Shortly after arriving in the United States, Rodchenkov learned that one of his colleagues, former Russian anti-doping agency chief Nikita Kamaev, died under mysterious circumstances. Like many observers, Rodchenkov was convinced it wasn’t of natural causes: Kamaev had been writing a tell-all book about the Russian government’s athletic doping programs.

This prompted Rodchenkov to come forward with what he knew. He became a whistleblower on the extensive doping program he had overseen and which had been used to boost the Russian team’s performance at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (Rodchenkov’s allegations were detailed by The New York Times, and his journey, from lab director to whistleblower, in the riveting Netflix documentary Icarus, which was nominated for an Academy Award today.)

According to Rodchenkov, the scheme involved doping Russian athletes with a three-drug cocktail during the Games. At night, Rodchenkov and his FSB curators would swap the Russian athletes’ dirty urine for their clean urine, and the athletes would test negative for performance-enhancing drugs. The Russian Olympic team swept the medal count that year, with 33 medals, 13 of them gold.  Rodchenkov has said he believes that half of those medals were the result of his doping work in the laboratory at Sochi.

Icarus recounts how, because of the mounting fear that his life was in danger, Rodchenkov went into the Federal Witness Protection Program. He now lives in an undisclosed location in the United States, and Walden said he has been told to assume that there are Russian agents hunting for Rodchenkov on American soil.

After Rodchenkov’s revelations were corroborated by two independent investigations, Russia was stripped of four of its gold medals, and the Russian Olympic team, along with Russia’s Olympic officials, were banned from competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Russian athletes who can prove they are clean will be allowed to compete under a neutral flag. The much-feared Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, which conducts criminal investigations and is run by one of Vladimir Putin’s college buddies, has also looked into the matter and predictably found that Rodchenkov’s claims are unsubstantiated, despite the overwhelming evidence in the independent investigations.

Thirty-nine Russian athletes banned for doping have since appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which adjudicates Olympic disputes, hoping to still be able to participate at Pyeongchang next month. The Russian athletes have demanded that, despite the threats against him, Rodchenkov testify in person at a hearing this week in Switzerland. The IOC refused Walden’s demand that Russia stop threatening Rodchenkov. Rodchenkov will testify by secure video link.

“Russia is doing anything and everything in its power to silence him,” Walden says. “It would be fanciful to assume that he’s anything other than a hunted man. The threat to him is alive well and serious, even when all the investigations are over, he’ll be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life.”