28th February 2018

Dr. Rodchenkov’s lawyer threatens legal action against Prokhorov

Jim Walden, lawyer for Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, has threatened legal action against Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov if he is financing a defamation lawsuit launched by three Russian biathletes against the former Director of the Moscow and Sochi 2014 laboratories. ‘We note that the Lawsuit, based on information in press reports, appears not to be intended to vindicate any actual wrongs committed against the Plaintiffs, but instead used to intimidate or retaliate against a whistleblower’, reads a letter from Walden to Prokhorov obtained by Yahoo News (PDF below). ‘As such, your lawsuit may implicate New York’s protections embodied in the Anti-SLAPP law, and Dr. Rodchenkov may have the right to maintain an action against you to recover damages’.

The defamation lawsuit

On 20 February, Olga Zaytseva, Yana Romanova and Olga Vilukhina filed a defamation lawsuit (Index No. 151550/2018) with the New York Supreme Court. It is understood that each is seeking US$10 million in damages, after being stripped of Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic biathlon relay gold medals.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) postponed hearings into the appeals of all three biathletes on 1 February, when it upheld appeals from 28 Russian athletes against the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) attempt to sanction them with anti-doping rule violations (ADRV) committed at Sochi 2014. A date for their hearings and the reason for their postponement was not revealed.

The three biathletes are understood to argue that Dr. Rodchenkov has defamed them by alleging that they received the ‘Duchess cocktail’ of three steroids – metenolone, oxandrolone and trenbolone – dissolved in alcohol to speed up absorption and shorten the detection period. Such athletes were ‘protected’ from reporting positive doping tests at Sochi 2014 through the ‘Disappearing Positive Methodology’, whereby their samples would be exchanged for clean urine collected in advance of the Games.

Olga Zaytseva was sanctioned by the IOC on 1 December last year. The Reasoned Decision in her case (PDF below) reveals that Dr. Rodchenkov claimed ‘that the entire Russian biathlete team, including the Athlete Zaytseva, ha[d] been using the Duchess Cocktail before the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014’. 

Mikhail Prokhorov’s biathlon tenure

Prokhorov, the Russian owner of National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise the Brooklyn Nets, is understood to be one of the financial backers behind the defamation lawsuit launched by the three biathletes. He was appointed as President of the Russian Biathlon Union (RBU) in 2008, but was replaced by Alexander Kravtsov in May 2014, after the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. In the affidavit that Dr. Rodchenkov provided to the IOC’s Schmid Commission (PDF below), Prokhorov was alleged to have bribed biathlete Irina Starykh to keep her quiet about being instructed to inject erythropoietin (EPO) by Stanislav (Statik) Dmitriev.

Russia’s Sochi 2014 biathlon coach, Wolfgang Pichler (a German), has denied all knowledge of any State doping system. Although he is now coaching the Swedish team, he found himself excluded from the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics due to a ban on coaches of athletes sanctioned by the IOC’s Oswald Commission from being accredited.

Screenshot of Russia’s Ministry of Sport’s internet site, showing Kravtsov as Head of the CSP…

Mikhail Prokhorov’s replacement as President of the RBU, Kravtsov, is listed as head of the Centre of Sports Preparation for the National Teams of Russia (CSP). He was in charge of preparing Russian athletes for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics.

In his affidavit, Dr. Rodchenkov mentions the CSP as being involved in the management of Russia’s State doping programme. He also mentions Kravtsov as initiating discussions about half the biathlon team being under the control of Dmitriev.

SLAPP

A Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) is one the litigator does not intend to win. It is designed to silence people by burdening them with the cost and effort of defending a case in the hope that, over time, they will abandon or retract their allegations. New York Civil Rights Law § 70-a is specifically designed to combat such lawsuits.

In his letter, Walden alleges that Prokhorov may have documents connected to the case against Dr. Rodchenkov, and asks him to ‘take appropriate steps’ to protect such documentation. He alleges that as well as communications with the plaintiffs, this could include communications with the Russian government, Federal Security Service (FSB), and the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC).

At risk

Whether such communications exist will be difficult for Dr. Rodchenkov’s team to prove. As well as owning the Brooklyn Nets, Prokhorov is a Russian industrialist who founded Onexim Group. Onexim Group owns a controlling stake in Norilsk Nickel, which was privatised in 1995. It has since been alleged that it was sold for significantly below its market value using the ‘loans for shares’ scheme proposed by banker Vladimir Ponatin, who is now President of Norilsk Nickel.

Prokhorov sold his stake in Norilsk Nickel in 2008, which is understood to have made him one of the richest men in Russia. In 2011, he resigned his industrial positions to enter politics, however faced accusations that the party he was to head was set up by the Kremlin in order to provide the illusion of credible opposition.

He also spearheaded Norilsk Nikel’s investment in Russian sport, which continues today. The company is a partner of Russia’s Football Union (FUR) and national football team; a partner of the XXIX World Winter Universiade, which takes place in Krasnoyarsk in March 2019; and agreed a partnership with the ROC in May last year. This followed its sponsorship of the Russian team at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. The company also owns CSKA basketball club and the Norilsk Nickel Futsal club.

In short, it could be argued that Prokhorov has become very rich due to being sold an industrial conglomerate at way below its market value by the Russian State. It would also appear that he has extensive connections within Russian sport due to Norilsk Nickel’s sponsorship programme. Similarly, it would appear that he has State connections due to his political campaign, as well as his involvement with a former State company.

Of course, none of this in any way suggests that Prokhorov bribed a Russian athlete to keep quiet about doping, or that the Russian biathlon team were doping ahead of the Sochi 2014 Olympics. These are the allegations that Prokhorov would argue that the defamation lawsuit is intended to fight. But it does provide an insight into why he might be prepared to financially back lawsuits against Dr. Rodchenkov.

The Energy and Commerce Committee of the US House of Representatives has been attempting to gather evidence that anchors payments relating to Russian doping to US shores for the past two years. Due to Prokhorov’s connections to the NBA, it could be argued that Dr. Rodchenkov’s allegations do just that, and therefore put Prokhorov’s position at risk.

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