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The Russian Olympic Doping Scandal Explained: 5 Things to Know

Alexander Legkov, Maxim Vylegzhanin and Ilia Chernousov at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

Credit: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Less than three months before the 2016 Olympics are set to kick off in Rio de Janeiro, the international athletic community is already making headlines. On Thursday, May 12, The New York Times published an exposé detailing an alleged wide-reaching doping scandal involving urine swaps, massive testing cover-ups and deeply entrenched conspiracies within the Russian government itself.

According to the report, the doping scheme involved dozens of Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, including at least 15 medal winners.

“People are celebrating Olympic champion winners, but we are sitting crazy and replacing their urine,” Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory, told the Times. “Can you imagine how Olympic sport is organized?”

At present, the nation’s athletics team may not be permitted to compete at this summer’s Olympic games; the decision will be made by the World Anti Doping Agency on June 17.

Below, we’ve rounded up the top five tidbits you need to know about this latest athletic scandal.

1. Athletes Downed Their Drugs — With Alcohol

According to Dr. Rodchenkov, he developed the perfect cocktail of three anabolic steroids — metenolone, trenbolone and oxandrolone — for athletes to take prior to their events. The combination of drugs allowed athletes to recover quickly from their rigorous competitions so they were in tip-top shape for the entirety of their Olympic run. And to speed up absorption of the steroids, he said he would dissolve the drugs in alcohol: Chivas whiskey for men, Martini vermouth for women.

2. Every Athlete Is Required to Provide Two Bottles of Urine

One bottle of urine, the A bottle, is tested right away, and the second one, the B bottle, is sealed and stored for up to 10 years just in case the athlete’s performance or wins are ever called into question. At Sochi, Dr. Rodchenkov recalled, the anti-doping experts at the lab would swap out any dirty samples with clean urine they’d collected months earlier through a hand-size hole in the wall — often in the middle of the night, just in time for testing the next day. Dr. Rodchenkov estimates that thousands of bottles of tainted urine were destroyed.

3. The Government Was Allegedly In on the Doping

In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, Vitaly Stepanov, a former employee who worked collecting urine and blood samples at an anti-doping clinic at the 2014 Sochi games, admitted that he would often be approached by officials to tamper with results or refrain from testing certain athletes altogether. “There was a situation when I was offered a bribe by the vice president of the federation — just like that person comes to me and he says, ‘This athlete cannot be tested. How much money do you need?’”

4. Putin Has Called for an Investigation

In November, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia needed to conduct its own investigation after allegations arose that athletes had been systematically taking performance-enhancing substances. "It is essential that we conduct our own internal investigation and provide the most open — and I want to underline — the most open professional cooperation with international anti-doping structures."

5. Russian Athletes Are Calling These Accusations Lies, Absurd

Olympic cross-country skier Alexander Legkov said at a news conference Friday that the claims made in the New York Times piece are “totally absurd.” “I don’t even know how steroids look,” he said. “I thought at first it was an April’s Fools joke. But it all turned out very unpleasant.”

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