The Dirty Games: how London 2012 became tainted

Super Saturday at the London Olympics, and at the ExCeL Centre a crowd of about 6,000 people are in arena three watching a young Kazakh called Ilya Ilyin, who is turning in what seemed to be one of the great performances in the men’s weightlifting 94kg division. With his very last lift of the competition Ilyin, 24, broke one world record in the clean and jerk, and another for a combined total. It won him the second of his Olympic gold medals. He put his success down, en parte, to a diet of “horsemeat and chicken”. Four years later, it turned out that two performance-enhancing steroids, Turinabol and stanozolol, had helped too.

Ilyin was stripped of both medals. But the process of reallocating them was complicated by the fact that the Russian who came second, Aleksandr Ivanov, had been caught using Turinabol too. So had the Molodovan who came third, Anatolie Ciricu. And the Russian who came fourth. And the Azerbaijani who finished sixth. And the Kazakh who finished seventh. And the Armenian who finished 11th. By the time they had finished going through all the samples, eight of the Top 14 had been disqualified and banned. Which made it quite possibly the single dirtiest event in Olympic history, at a Games which had been sold on the promise it would be the “cleanest ever”.

In March that year Hugh Robertson, the then minister for sport and the Olympics, had led a group of politicians, executives and journalists on a tour of the new anti-doping laboratory built especially for the Games in Harlow, Essex. It was designed and paid for by GlaxoSmithKline, in partnership with King’s College; it was the size of seven tennis courts, with a staff of more than 1,000. Robertson called it the most-up-to-date testing lab in the world. “This is about the integrity of the London Games," él dijo. “Anyone who is watching the Games wants to know that what they are seeing is a true and fair contest.”

The head of the laboratory, Prof David Cowan, is still proud of the partnership with GSK. It created a link between a big pharmaceutical company and an anti-doping community that is still there today. He sees it as part of the 2012 legacy. “One of the great things about working with GSK was that they were very well hardened against all the nasty things that can happen,” Cowan says. “They helped us make sure we were working in a secure site, were protected against terrorism, and that we were protected against hacking – because the government were concerned that another country could see the lab as an easy target. And GSK helped us make sure it wasn’t.”

Desafortunadamente, Robertson and his entourage weren’t the only people looking around the new facility that week. The World Anti-Doping Agency also organised a tour for a large group of laboratory scientists, including Grigory Rodchenkov, who ran the Wada-accredited lab in Moscow. Rodchenkov would turn out to be a key figure in the design, organisation and ultimate exposure of Russia’s state-run doping programme. Rodchenkov wrote in his autobiography the lab tour was “an ideal and exclusive opportunity to learn which methodology and procedures were planned in preparation for the next summer’s Juegos olímpicos, and what doping control equipment they had.”

Cowan is aware of the irony, but prefers not to comment on it.

“Each time the IOC created a new laboratory they prepared new traps and pitfalls for doped athletes,” Rodchenkov wrote. The tour meant he had been warned in advance what those traps and pitfalls were. Rodchenkov’s group had been told they weren’t allowed to take photos but he did anyway, “of everything, instrument after instrument, room after room”. The burglar had been given a behind the scenes tour of the bank vault. Five months later, he was back in London along with the Russian Olympic team, safe in the knowledge that the testing methods being used in the London lab couldn’t detect the cocktail of performance enhancing drugs distributed to dozens of Russian athletes.

During the three-week duration of the Games, the London lab tested 5,132 samples. Exactly eight of them tested positive for banned substances. That’s 0.15%. En el momento, Cowan had told the Guardian that he expected the final figure would be under 0.5%. “If we end up with more than even half-a-per cent I will be surprised," él dijo, “and I hope it is much fewer than that. Menos que 50 athletes and I think that estimate will be on the high side.” At the time he felt that the UK’s “strong reputation” for catching drugs cheats would act as a deterrent. It didn’t. Nor did the fact that the athletes knew the samples would be stored, and subjected to reanalysis, for a period of 10 years after the Games were over.

As the International Testing Agency has reanalysed those samples in the years since, the trickle of positive tests turned into a flood. As of now, 149 athletes who competed at London have been found guilty of doping violations and there are still a handful of cases pending. That’s about 3%, six times the number Cowan expected. A third of those were from Russia, many of them from Rodchenkov’s programme. “But it wasn’t just athletes from Russia who were using that,” says Tim Ricketts, Wada’s director of standards and harmonisation. “There were others in countries surrounding Russia using the same concoction of substances. So obviously, the message had been passed on.” There were 17 from Ukraine and 15 from Belarus, as well as 15 from Turkey. The rest come from a spread of 26 otros paises.

The majority (95) de El 149 were competing in athletics, and a large number of the rest (39) in weightlifting, with others in wrestling, cycling, judo, gymnastics, natación, boxeo, canoeing, and rowing. The breakdown is heavily skewed towards certain sports and certain countries, because the testing was targeted towards areas anti-doping intelligence had identified as a target.

In all, 42 medals were taken away from people who had originally won them, along with five more from the USA’s 4x100m relay squad after one member, Tyson Gay, tested positive for anabolic steroids. Of the 42, 19 were won in weightlifting. The men’s 94kg weightlifting wasn’t the only event in which all three winners turned out to be cheats; the women’s 75kg weightlifting was another. Otro 19 de El 42 were won in athletics. Given those numbers, if you were watching the athletics or the weightlifting then what you were seeing really wasn’t, in Robertson’s phrase, a “true and fair contest” at all.

Many of the athletes competing at the time knew it, también. The women’s 1500m, which has gone down as one of the most infamous races in the history of athletics, ended up with four of the Top nine finishers being banned, including both the gold and silver medallists. As Lisa Dobriskey, who originally finished 10th but has since been bumped up to sixth, said at the time: “I don’t believe I’m competing on a level playing field”.

Jeremy Hunt, who was then the minister for culture, media and sport, disagreed. At the time he said London was “the cleanest Olympics ever”. Eight years later, Rodchenkov would describe it as “the dirtiest in history”. Neither is right. London likely wasn’t the dirtiest Games, just the one where the most cheats ended up getting caught. There are unwritten histories of the systematic corruption of the Olympics in the 1980s and 1990s, when numerous countries were running doping programmes. Everyone involved in Olympic sport during that era knows the stories. There is a paradox here. The cleaner you are, the more dopers you catch; the more dopers you catch, the dirtier you look.

“I was reflecting on that myself,” says Cowan. “A lot was revealed at London in terms of making the system better. I think we did a good job in actually improving the whole anti-doping system.” Rodchenkov, who ultimately exposed what had happened in Russia, would disagree that those improvements had anything much to do with the lab as it did the bravery of a handful of whistleblowers. Rodchenkov argues that the fact the London lab missed so many positive samples first time around is a sign that it failed. Cowan would reply that the fact that positives were identified later on is a sign that the anti-doping system worked in the long run. De todas formas, it all came too late for the clean athletes who were denied their moment on the podium.

As to whether it was a deterrent or not, Ricketts says: “I guess we’ll have to wait and see how Rio turns out when they’ve finished the reanalysis of that Games. I would hope that what happened in London was a one-off, por supuesto, but I think the proof will be in the Rio samples.”

Violations by sport

Atletismo 95

Weightlifting 39

Wrestling 4

Ciclismo 4

Canoeing 2

Judo, gymnastics, natación, boxeo, rowing 1 cada

Violations by country

Rusia 48

Ukraine 17

Belarus, Turkey 15 cada

Kazakhstan 6

Azerbaijan, Moldova, Romania, Uzbekistan 4 cada

Albania, Armenia, Marruecos 3 cada

Colombia, Georgia, Arabia Saudita, Slovakia, Estados Unidos 2 cada

Brasil, Bulgaria, porcelana, Francia, Italia, Latvia, Lithuania, Saint Kitts & Nevis, España, Syria, Tajikistan, Trinidad & Tobago, Qatar 1 cada




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