PART IV / CHAPTER 1: THE LOS ANGELES EARTHQUAKE
As soon as I’d conquered my jet lag and the anxiety associated with acclimating myself to such new surroundings, Bryan [Fogel] pressed me into service for his Icarus documentary. My role was to explain the chemistry of sport doping and the loopholes in doping control practice, and to help them understand which angles to pursue. A top-level amateur cyclist, Bryan wanted to prove that he could dramatically improve his time in the gruelling seven-day alpine race between Mègeve and Nice using undetectable doping strategies. I explained to him the fundamental rule of doping in sport: the important thing was not that the doping preparations he was taking were undetectable but when they were detectable. If the testing occurred at the right time and place, he might get caught.
Even though I was staying in a different part of town, Bryan was my host in L.A., and we spent many hours getting to know each other. He was a talented journalist with good interviewing instincts. He filmed me numerous times, and I began to feel more expansive about sharing some of my doping secrets. No one was watching and the stakes seemed low, so I began to answer questions more freely.
For his part, Bryan kept pressing me harder and asking for more detail. He started calling me a ‘shark’, and then joked that he had landed ‘a big fish’. ‘You are the megashark,’ he said to me one day. He was joking but also deadly serious. ‘I know you are keeping something secret. A nuclear-sized secret.’
Bryan insisted on knowing what I was holding back. And of course, I had brought something to Los Angeles with me other than my laptop and running gear. Outside of Russia, I was the sole possessor of perhaps the greatest secret in twenty-first-century sport: I knew that the Russians had devised an unimaginably audacious cheating scheme for the Sochi Olympics, and got away with it.
Nonetheless, I realised that I had to talk. The simple thought hit me each day that if something were to happen to me, the Sochi story would never be told. Feeling paranoid, I made a copy of my Moscow office computer and Sochi laptop hard drives that contained 50,000 files and gave it to Bryan, asking him to keep it in a safe place. Unsurprisingly, that made him both nervous and suspicious.
‘What’s on that drive?’ he asked me numerous times, his journalist’s antennae vibrating. I could tell he was wondering whether I had information that might affect the documentary he was shooting.
‘What’s on that drive is so complex that it would take me several days to explain,’ I answered. But Bryan was relentless and wouldn’t be dissuaded. Late one evening, I finally spat it out and told him that we had swapped samples in the Sochi laboratory. I don’t think either of us fully understood the magnitude of what I had revealed. We agreed that I would answer all his questions on camera the following day and scheduled a three-hour interview for me to unburden myself for the first time.
On Tuesday 22 December, Bryan and his cameraman, Andrew Siegman, came to my apartment and set up four cameras for what would prove to be a historic shoot. We spent three hours recording what we would later call the ‘black jacket’ interview, because I’m wearing a dark ash-coloured Pierre Cardin fleece jacket throughout. It would be the first time I or anyone on the planet had spoken publicly about the Sochi cheating scheme.
Bryan: ‘Does Russia have a systematic, state-wide doping system in place to cheat the Olympics?’
Bryan: ‘Were you the mastermind of the state-wide system that cheated the Olympics?’
GR: ‘Of course.’
I didn’t completely understand what had just happened, but Bryan did. He was no longer making a documentary about Lance Armstrong and doping in the world of elite cycling and was instead making a movie about the greatest sports scandal of the twenty-first century: Russia’s unprecedented commitment to cheating in international competitions.
A key story element was the FSB’s brilliant reverse engineering of the BEREG-kit bottles. It was a miracle that I would never have believed possible until I saw it with my own eyes. Bryan needed some bottles so he could explain on film how they had been opened and swapped in the Sochi laboratory. I called Nikita Kamaev in Moscow and asked him to send me a couple of BEREG-kits. He was not happy with that and started quoting WADA rules, pointing out that it would be suspicious if BEREG-kits with traceable Russian serial numbers appeared in Los Angeles.
‘Cool down and send me some BEREG-kits,’ I replied. ‘Nothing seems out of place here – it’s the home of the “Terminator”! Everybody’s at home in Los Angeles!’
‘OK,’ Nikita eventually agreed, ‘but you need to help me too. I’ve started to write a book about sports pharmacological programmes in the Soviet Union and Russia and would like your advice.’
‘Pharmacology’ was the widely used euphemism for doping. I was surprised and upset. ‘Do you know how dangerous is to write such a book in Russia?’ I exclaimed. ‘Have you told anyone that you are writing it? One night your house will go up in smoke, with you and your computer inside!’
‘Oh, Grinya, you are emotional, even paranoid and you always exaggerate your fears,’ Nikita replied. ‘I’ll send you the BEREG-kits tomorrow. Relax’.
2016 promised to be a turbulent and exciting year, to put it mildly. Bryan and his producers began to worry about my security, and I moved to a safer location in Santa Monica. I started jogging again and built up my strength for writing, which proceeded slowly because I had to re-read and rewrite every chapter several times. My English is strong, but more suited to laboratories and conferences than the emotional retelling of my life story.
On 21 January, the British government published a report concluding that Russian agents were ‘probably responsible’ for the assassination of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. Then Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko decided to take notice of my absence, mentioning in a press interview that Dr Tim Sobolevsky and I were both working in laboratories in Los Angeles. ‘What’s going on?’ he asked. This was a bizarre thing to say, and only half-true. Tim had left Russia for his dream job at UCLA’s Olympic Analytical Laboratory, but I was still supposedly in Southern California to alleviate my asthma.
Just a few days later, Vyacheslav Sinev, who ran RUSADA between its creation in 2008 and 2011, suddenly died. I phoned Nikita, who had succeeded Sinev in 2011, though he had lost that job two months previously – after the release of the Pound Report, WADA declared RUSADA to be non-compliant with the Code, and a month later Nikita and his patron, Professor Ramil Khabriev, were forced to resign.
We talked about our books and Nikita informed me that he had already contacted foreign publishers about his investigation into the history of doping since the Soviet era.
‘Do you have any idea what you’re doing?’ I exclaimed. ‘You will infuriate so many people, you will have so many new enemies, you cannot even imagine! Look, you have an apartment in Valencia, so go there and write – don’t do it in Russia! And please, make several copies of your book and documents, and store them among reliable friends. And make complete backups each week – your computer might be hacked.’
As usual, Nikita pushed back against my tirade. ‘There are no computer files – I’m writing with pen on paper. I want to thank you again for your lovely fiftieth birthday present, this beautiful Montblanc pen. I’m writing my book in longhand – just like Balzac!’
‘But why are you doing it in Russia?’ I said again.
‘Calm down – I’ve only jotted down about fifty pages of notes. No one could possibly perceive that to be a threat,’ argued Nikita.
‘In that case, please take pictures or scans of all your pages, for your own security and for backups!’ I yelled.
But Nikita had no intention of taking my advice, or of leaving his home at the Ozero Krugloye resort ten miles outside Moscow, where he lived with his 85-year-old mother. He planned to spend the rest of the winter at home with her, working on his book. And he had no intention of making any copies – unlike me, he was not a paranoid alarmist and thought he was living in a normal country.
A few days later, on 14 February, I was working on my manuscript when I received a text message from Nikita’s number: Гриша, Никита умер ('Grisha, Nikita has died'). I immediately called back, and his wife Anna answered. We wept and talked for over an hour.
‘Do you know where his book is?’ I asked Anna.
She didn’t know what I was talking about.
‘OK, maybe not a book, but where are the handwritten pages that he’s been working on for the past few months?’
‘I can’t lay my hands on them,’ she said, explaining that Nikita’s mother had immediately locked his study and kept hold of the key. ‘I can’t confront her now, obviously . . .’
I heard some noise in the background – the police had arrived to confirm Nikita’s death and draft their official report – and then Anna’s cell phone went dead. When I tried Nikita’s, it wasn’t working either.
Just the day before, Nikita had been in high spirits. He had even sent me a silly video of him fumbling with the motor of his little snowmobile, trying to clean out some mechanical problem with a twig.
On the day he died, Nikita visited his lawyer and then went skiing in the forest next to his house. When he returned, he said he felt weak. He lay down and realised almost immediately that he was dying. He remarked to Anna what a banal ending it seemed, and that he loved her very much. Within an hour, he was dead in her arms.
To call his death a mystery would be an understatement. Nikita never complained of heart problems, he never smoked and hardly ever drank alcohol. He was basically a workaholic and was either at his desk, or driving to and from work. He and I were colleagues at the VNIIFK back in the late 1980s, and often exercised together in the gym after work. We lived near the same forest and worked out together – I ran while he skied, and he’d curse me for damaging his trail with my footprints!
I was stunned and paralysed for a whole week, and then we received our final gift from Nikita – the two boxes of BEREG-kits we’d asked him for. How sad, and how ironic. We put them to excellent use in Icarus.