In the years since a whistleblower implicated Russia in one of the most sophisticated doping schemes in sports history, the country has made repeated efforts to discredit him. Last year, Russia officials took that campaign one step further: They planted fabricated messages that they later claimed were written by the whistleblower in a database that they had agreed to turn over to investigators from the World Anti-Doping Agency.
The effort appeared to have several goals, according to a report compiled by the anti-doping agency's intelligence and investigations unit and obtained by The New York Times: To frame the whistleblower as the ringleader in a scheme to extort athletes and coaches by threatening to manipulate doping samples; to provide cover for the manipulations of test results within the data set; and to help Russia avoid serious penalties from global anti-doping regulators.
The problem for Russia is that the investigators quickly uncovered the fabrications and the altered test results. And now Russian sports is facing its biggest crisis to date.
On Monday, WADA confirmed that the committee charged with investigating and monitoring Russia compliance with global anti-doping rules had recommended barring the country from all international sporting events, including next year's Olympics in Tokyo, for four years. WADA's executive board will consider the committee's recommendation when it meets for a special session 9 December in Paris. It is expected to agree with the findings.
If Russia is barred, the country can appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, sport's highest court. The court then would have to weigh evidence of manipulation and rule-breaking so brazen that some of it occurred while investigators were inside the Moscow laboratory to retrieve the data.
The fabricated messages implicating the Russian whistleblower, Grigory Rodchenkov, were a part of a database known as the Moscow Data that Russia turned over to anti-doping officials as part of a deal that allowed Russia to return to most international sports competitions in 2018. But based on details revealed in a close reading of its dozens of pages, which have not been made public, investigators quickly determined that the fabricated messages were inserted into the electronic records of Russia's anti-doping agency more than two years after Rodchenkov, the former director of Russia's anti-doping laboratory, had fled the country.
Further scrutiny of the database revealed a massive data manipulation effort to conceal failed drug tests by an unknown number of Russian athletes.
"The fabricated, modified and deleted Forum Messages are a stunning deception," investigators wrote in the report. "They are the figurative 'smoking gun'.
"Moreover, their existence demonstrates intent and provides a lens through which the totality of manipulations within the Moscow Data should be observed."
Margarita Pakhnotskaya, deputy director general of Russia's anti-doping agency, RUSADA, said the organization would wait until a final decision on a possible ban from world sports was made before deciding whether to appeal. The multiyear ban, which would have implications for Russian sports far beyond the Olympic Games, fulfilled a prediction made by RUSADA's current chief, Yuri Ganus, who for weeks had called on Russian authorities to come clean about manipulations in the data.
The report lays out attempts at a cover-up lacking any subtlety and efforts by Russia to portray Rodchenkov as a criminal mastermind eager to enrich himself.
"We need to tell him straight and clearly, that we are creating the appearance of dirty samples, and the athletes and their trainers are bringing us bonuses," one message supposedly sent by Rodchenkov reads. "Treat all the files using the scheme, and you can take your Bonus home," read another.
"Russia must think the world is completely stupid if they thought anyone would believe their ham-handed fabrications," said Jim Walden, Rodchenkov's American lawyer. "When the full story is revealed, Russia's desperate efforts to continue to falsely blame Dr Rodchenkov will be fully exposed."
While fake messages supposedly from Rodchenkov were added, others were deleted, including several from Evgeny Kudryavtsev, an official who had been responsible for ensuring that the biological samples of Russian athletes competing overseas were clean.
Eighteen of 25 messages deleted from the database relate to Kudryavtsev, according to investigators. In a signed affidavit provided to a separate International Olympic Committee investigation, Rodchenkov said Kudryavtsev was directly involved in sample swapping " replacing dirty urine samples with clean ones " at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Investigators also found evidence that on 6 January, four days before the WADA team was finally allowed access to the laboratory, 15,325 files and folders containing the "most relevant anti-doping data" had been deleted.
Much of the data that remained simply did not add up.
WADA came to some of its conclusions by comparing the Russia-supplied data with the information in a database of athlete samples from the Moscow laboratory that it received from Rodchenkov in 2017. In those samples, analysed between January 2012 and August 2015, investigators identified 578 suspicious samples from 298 athletes. Investigators hoped the secrets in the files that Moscow turned over would provide conclusive evidence of cheating.
In almost every case, though, the Moscow Data had been altered, either to remove any trace of failed drug tests or to alter the concentrations of prohibited substances to a level lower than the threshold for a positive result.
The report concluded that the first evidence of laboratory data being altered dated to 2016, the year Rodchenkov went public with revelations about how he had helped Russia perfect a system to cover up failed tests by its athletes.
But the majority of changes, the report says, occurred after September 2018, when Russian officials realized the consequences of their agreement to open data from the Moscow laboratory to WADA scrutiny. Until then, officials had rejected all requests from WADA to enter the laboratory, claiming since 2016 that the facility had been declared a "crime scene" under the supervision of state authorities investigating Rodchenkov.
Jonathan Taylor, the head of the WADA committee responsible for overseeing Russian compliance and for producing the report that the board will consider, wrote that his committee did not know who gave the instructions to alter and delete the Moscow Data or to plant fabricated messages in it to try to falsely incriminate Rodchenkov, who now lives in the United States.
But, Taylor wrote, the "Moscow laboratory was at all relevant times under the authority and control of the Russian Ministry of Sport and/or the Russian Investigative Committee." Each, he wrote, was well aware of the need to protect the integrity of the database.
Tariq Panja c.2019 The New York Times Company