6th December 2019

Masters of Manipulation vs. Tellers of Truth

Telling the truth doesn’t always mean a lighter punishment, just as it is very difficult to prove that somebody is lying in order to issue a harsh punishment. The same can be true in anti-doping, as these two cases (here and here) illustrate. Often, the first line of defence for anyone accused of a doping offence – guilty or not – is that they didn’t do it. 

Often, which version of events is put forward as the truth comes down to who blinks first. And the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is involved in an epic staring contest with Russia.

A short recap. In September 2018, WADA reinstated the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) on the condition that it provided access to the samples stored at the Moscow Laboratory, as well as the Moscow Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS). WADA already had a copy of the LIMS, which it ‘acquired’ in 2017. In January 2019, it retrieved the samples and extracted the LIMS from the Moscow Laboratory. In July, it identified inconsistencies between the two LIMS databases.

On Monday, WADA’s Executive Committee will consider whether to accept the recommendation of WADA’s Compliance Review Committee (CRC) to declare RUSADA as non-compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code. If it approves the recommendation, this could have consequences for Russia’s participation as a nation in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and other major events, as well as Russia’s ability to host major sporting events.

We didn’t do it

Russian authorities have denied responsibility for manipulating the Moscow LIMS in a 13 page reply to WADA’s Intelligence & Investigations (I&I) team, which found discrepancies between the LIMS it retrieved in January and the LIMS provided by a ‘whistleblower’ in 2017. In short, the response (PDF below) argues that WADA’s I&I team ignored its evidence that the LIMS database given to it by the ‘whistleblower’ in 2017 may have been manipulated.

It names Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the former Director of the Moscow Laboratory, as the person who provided the LIMS database to WADA in 2017. It argues that Russian technical specialists provided WADA with evidence that he covered up positive tests and contaminated ‘clean’ samples, including by synthesising metabolites of prohibited substances to plant in them, in order to extort money from athletes.

WADA has never named the ‘whistleblower’ who gave it the LIMS database. As reported by The Sports Integrity Initiative, Dr. Rodchenkov is shown discussing a ‘database’ with WADA management in Bryan Fogel’s ‘Icarus’ film. However, ‘Icarus’ premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017, before WADA ‘acquired’ the database in October 2017, as its statement terms it.

Dr. Rodchenkov left Russia for the USA on 17 November 2015, following his assistant Dr. Timofey Sobolevsky and Oleg Migachev – designer of the Moscow LIMS – who both fled to the USA after resigning from the Moscow Laboratory in August 2015. The Russian authorities argue that Dr. Rodchenkov took six months to allege State doping, and the trio had almost two years in which to manipulate the LIMS before it was handed to WADA in 2017.

They argue that evidence was provided that the LIMS was ‘modified and changed from time to time’ from Los Angeles between November 2015 and June 2016. It argues that the manipulations were made from a Los Angeles IP address using the account ‘olegmigachev’. 

The I&I team’s Report accepts that Dr. Sobolevsky and Migachev ‘may have accessed the LIMS system remotely’, but the last evidence of any such access was on 9 June 2016. Its independent experts found no evidence that tampering with the LIMS data was conducted remotely.

The Russian authorities counter that this isn’t surprising, as its technical experts are ‘unanimous that any LIMS version (as well as any other software product) not used in the regular operation mode can be altered without any clues (without leaving any traces of a manipulation made)’. It argued that this connection was only severed when Evgeny Mochalov was hired as the Moscow Laboratory’s System Administrator in June 2016. WADA’s I&I team blamed Mochalov, who is the husband of current Moscow Laboratory Director Elena Mochalova, as being responsible for a number of deletions and manipulations until 16 January 2019, the day before it retrieved the Moscow LIMS.

The Russian authorities expand on a claim first put forward by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (SKR or Sledcom) in 2017, which was that the trio contacted Laboratory staff in order to obtain the raw data that underpins the LIMS database. They claim that in August and September 2017, Dr. Rodchenkov offered money and asylum in the US to the Director of the Laboratory in return for the database containing the raw data of athlete anti-doping tests. This was shortly before WADA announced that it had ‘acquired’ the database in September 2017, but after ‘Icarus’.

Russian forensic experts claim to have discovered a ‘data.php’ script within the Moscow LIMS which it argues an unidentified person used to falsify .pdf files to insert false records into the Moscow LIMS until 2015. They also claim to have discovered a ‘mechanism’ embedded within the LIMS that automatically completed reports labelled as a ‘presumptive positive’ as containing no prohibited substances. 

In addition, the Russian authorities quote a 13 May 2019 preliminary Report of the I&I team (the final I&I Report is dated November) as finding that users who had the appropriate level of administration rights could undertake action without generating a log file. It also asserts that the November 2019 Report failed to investigate the preliminary Report’s findings that the LIMS provided to WADA in 2017 had been manipulated.

According to the Russian authorities, the I&I team’s May Report found that 12,269 actions had been conducted by remote access to the LIMS provided to WADA in 2017. In 2013, 6,523 of them occurred, whilst 5,746 occurred in 2014. ‘It further stated that the circumstances […] “need additional research”’, reads the Russian Report. ‘The subsequent I&I Report of September 6, 2019 does not contain any comments regarding this matter’. 

All of the above is used to assert that WADA cannot rely on the database provided to it in 2017 as being authentic. The Russian Report is critical of the decision to use that database as a ‘benchmark’ for this reason. ‘The criterion of “comfortable satisfaction” used in the I&I Report to assess the objectivity and authenticity of the electronic archive of the Moscow Laboratory, as well as alleged intentional interference with it, is absolutely unacceptable’, it reads.

Inconsistencies

There are major inconsistencies between the version of events presented by WADA and the Russian authorities. The first concerns the involvement of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (SKR or Sledcom), which both Reports refer to as the ICR. 

‘Investigation agencies have not in any way worked with the databases in the Laboratory until their removal by WADA experts in January 2019’, reads the Russian Report. ‘ICR officials only visited the Laboratory upon a written request by the Laboratory administration for a check-up and maintenance of the freezer where the biological samples were stored’.

WADA asserts that the ICR removed three hard drives from the Moscow Laboratory on 21 July 2016. This was shortly after it launched a criminal investigation into Dr. Rodchenkov on 8 June 2016, which the Russian Report confirms is ‘ongoing’. WADA’s CRC Report on the I&I team’s investigation suggests that Russian authorities have accepted that the ICR did remove three hard drives from the Laboratory, but argued that they remained untouched in sealed bags. Why it would do this is not explained.

‘The Independent Experts have advised that 110 Raw Data Files and 120 PDF Files that were generated in the Moscow laboratory cannot be found on the ICR Disks’, reads Footnote 10 of the CRC’s Report. ‘Furthermore, the fact that Raw Data Files or PDF Files that previously existed on instrument computers were only found in deleted state on the ICR Disks raises questions about the integrity and completeness of the data on those disks. 

‘Furthermore, 149 PDF Files recovered (by carving) from ICR Disk 2 were found to have been altered after the original file creation by copying chromatograms of a particular substance from a negative sample onto the PDF of the positive sample, and then changing the internal sample code from the copied material to match the internal code given to the positive sample. The Independent Experts advise that the changes appear selective, in that they have been observed only for one or a few specific substances in the PDF Files.’

‘Not a single Russian athlete was aware of such a scheme being operated in the Moscow Laboratory in 2012-2015 to falsify the results of doping tests’, reads the Russian Report. This statement is directly contradicted by a December 2012 letter written by Russian Discus athlete Darya Pishchalnikova (PDF below). This outlines how Valentin Balakhnichev, then President of the Russian Athletics Federation (RusAF) and Treasurer of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), colluded with Dr. Rodchenkov to cover up positive tests in return for money.

Detail from the Independent Commission’s first Report…

In the promotion of Dr. Rodchenkov as a ‘whistleblower’, it has largely been forgotten that he extorted money from athletes in return for covering up positive doping tests. Yuliya Stepanova paid him 30,000 roubles to cover up a positive test. WADA’s first Independent Commission Report outlines his extortion of athletes in detail.

In 2011, he was arrested along with his sister, Marina Rodchenkova, as part of a doping conspiracy involving senior Russian athletics officials.

The Independent Commission Report heard evidence that Dr. Rodchenkov’s sister took the blame for his crimes…

The Independent Commission report outlines that it is widely believed that his sister, who was imprisoned, took the blame for him.

He attempted to take his own life on 23 February 2011 and was sectioned within a mental hospital until 26 April, when he was released. In the ‘Icarus’ documentary, Dr. Rodchenkov tells Fogel that this release was personally ordered by Russian President, Vladimir Putin, due to an invitation to visit the London 2012 laboratory and in return for Rodchenkov’s running the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic doping programme.

Finally, the Russian Report reads: ‘There has been no intentional interference by any persons with the LIMS electronic databases and original analytical data (raw and pdf files) aimed to falsify, delete and otherwise modify them since their removal from the Laboratory by WADA experts in July 2016’. WADA didn’t remove the LIMS database or analytical data from the Moscow Laboratory until January 2019. However, as mentioned, it did allege that the ICR removed three hard drives from the Laboratory in July 2016. Typo, or freudian slip?

Choose your narrative

Further detail from the Independent Commission Report…

Whether you believe that either WADA or the Russian authorities are masters of manipulation or the tellers of truth largely depends on which narrative you wish to believe. However, there are a number of significant holes.

The first concerns Sochi 2014, where Russian athletes didn’t report a single adverse analytical finding (AAF). If the Russian authorities are correct and a criminal trio were masterminds of a plot to extort Russian athletes in return for covering up positive tests, then they missed a major source of income.

Elena Mochalova is currently Director of the Moscow Laboratory, and worked alongside Dr. Rodchenkov. Along with other Laboratory employees, she produced a research paper on anti-doping at Sochi 2014, where Russian State manipulation of the doping control system arguably reached its zenith. If Dr. Rodchenkov is a criminal mastermind that the Russian authorities suggest he is, then why was Mochalova allowed to continue as Director of the Laboratory? Why was her husband, Oleg Mochalov, employed as the Moscow Laboratory’s IT System Administrator?

Also, there are at least three Reports which haven’t seen the light of day. The response from the Russian authorities to WADA’s 89 page confidential Report (which you can read about here) mentions a Digital Forensic Examination Report produced by the University of Lausanne on 15 August 2019, which they claim either distorts the findings of the I&I team or contradicts them. This is the second Report that hasn’t been seen.

Also mentioned is a 13 May 2019 preliminary report of the I&I team, the conclusions of which are apparently ignored in the 89 page November Report. This is the third Report that hasn’t been seen, which details changes made to the LIMS database remotely. WADA has questions to answer regarding Russia’s assertion that it didn’t follow these changes up. There may be a good reason, but we have yet to hear it.

Sport is politics

The participation of Russia as a nation in international sport is once again in danger. If WADA’s Executive Committee approves the CRC’s recommendation, Russia will not be permitted to host any major sporting events for four years. Its flag will not be flown at major sporting events, and Russian government officials could be removed from the boards of any signatory to the World Anti-Doping Code. It is amazing that there hasn’t been more public anger in Russia about the situation.

WADA has outlined only RUSADA or certain impacted sporting bodies – but not the Russian authorities – can appeal its decision. As it has been a vocal critic of the manipulation of the LIMS data and WADA has clarified that it will be allowed to continue to perform ani-doping testing during its suspension, a RUSADA appeal appears unlikely. An appeal from the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) is likely, as Russia’s participation as a nation at Tokyo 2020 is in jeopardy.

Russia is a sporting superpower, and sport is worried. After calling for the ‘toughest sanctions’ against Russia, IOC President Thomas Bach presented Alisher Usmanov with the IOC Trophy of Olympic Values four days later. A cynic might argue that this was a reward for Usmanov, the Russian President of the international fencing federation (FIE), after he pledged massive investment into the sport. Vladimir Lisin, the Russian President of the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF), has pledged similar large investment.

It could be argued that the timing of both investments is significant. Similarly, it could be argued that the timing of a 30 November SportAccord decision to award the 2021 edition of its sport and business summit for the Olympic movement in Ekaterinburg, allegedly without a bidding process (see Twitter thread below), is also significant. If the WADA Executive Committee approves the CRC’s recommendations, there is a danger that Russia could be blocked from hosting such events.

Russia has qualified for the Euro 2020 football tournament next year. A European Championship without Russia? Unthinkable. The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) has remained remarkably quiet about whether it will be allowed to compete. It has also said nothing about whether St. Petersburg will be stripped of the three group matches and a quarter final that it is scheduled to host.

In its Report, the CRC recommended that Russia may not host any event organised by a Major Event Organisation during the four year period of RUSADA’s suspension. ‘Where the right to host any such event in the Four Year Period has already been awarded to Russia, the signatory in question must withdraw that right and re-assign the event to another country, unless it is legally or practically impossible to do so’, it read.

The last ten words of that sentence are crucial. Despite giving the perception of a harsh sanction, it allows sport wriggle room to continue to host events in Russia. It would appear that money has just as much influence as integrity where sports politics are concerned.

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