Op-Ed: ‘All Russians are dopers’ is a bogeyman narrative about a rogue nation

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I was 14 years old and in my second full cycling season when Sergei Sukhoruchenkov won the 1980 Olympic road race in Moscow at the height of the Cold War. The United States and its allies boycotted the Games. A war, real war, was in the air. Any moment now.

A lot of us, even kids like me, believed we were going to war with America soon. Our leaders made us believe it. They made us believe a lie. Tell a lie long enough and the masses will swallow it, digest it, and run with it as gospel until you tell them a new lie. Fake news, they call it today. George Orwell invented a better word for it — doublethink.

Nothing new under the sun.

Me, I was dreaming. Nuclear war and all that jazz, yeah okay, whatever. Can you stop it? No. So, don’t worry about it. This guy on the TV screen smashing everyone, breaking away from a breakaway, dancing on his cherry-red Colnago over the hills, you want to be him one day. You want that Olympic gold medal to hang on your neck. You want the national anthem blast from the speakers to honor your victory.

Sergei Sukhoruchenkov, he used to be a kid, too. Ten years before, in fact, he was 14 and now he’s an Olympic road champion, the second Russian in the history of our sport after Viktor Kapitonov’s gold in Rome.

Dream. Put the miles in, the hard work, never stop dreaming.

Fast forward three years. The Olympic Development Center “Titan” selects me from a pool of hand-picked candidates to join their project. The team’s purpose is to make world-class team time trial specialists.

Make. That’s the word for it. They make them. They have a system, a method to make them. Find the best diesels in the country, the time trial machines, offer them a deal and make them into supercharged time trial machines.

Nikolai Razouvaev (left) at the 1984 Junior World Championships

Fast forward to 1984. The payback. Russia boycotts the Los Angeles Olympic Games and I’m on the top step of a podium wearing a rainbow jersey and a gold medal on my neck. Four Americans are on my right and four Dutchmen are on my left. We’re junior world champions in the team time trial. The Soviet national anthem blasts from the speakers. A young woman gives me flowers and says something in French. The French, they think we all speak French. No sweetie, we don’t. You want to talk to me, speak Russian.

We pack away our time trial Takhions and ride cherry-red Colnagos back to the hotel to cool down. We laugh. We can’t believe how easy the race was. Four time trial machines assembled into a clockwork mechanism. You can’t beat that.

In bed that night, I can’t sleep. I can’t sleep because I’ve decided to bail out from the road race, go to the police station in the town we stay in, and ask for asylum. Defect from the Soviet Union. Run.

I can’t sleep because I had a dream four years ago: the Olympic Games. I want that. It’s the next step. You showed them what you can do. You’re a time trial machine, they know that now. The next Games in Seoul, it’s yours, you’re almost there. Go for it.

I bail out from the road race and ride to the police station. I don’t defect. Later, I can do this later after the Games. I have a dream. Make it happen.

Fast forward 33 years, to February 2018. Russians in South Korea compete as the Olympic Athletes from Russia. It’s the Newspeak if you didn’t know.

I’m watching a documentary film called Icarus. A bunch of people have asked me if I have watched it. No, I’d tell them, I haven’t. Oh, they’d say, you should. It’s about systematic doping in Russia. State-sponsored, and all that.

By now, 28 years after I had crossed the Soviet border to never see the workers’ paradise again, I know the script, the storyline. If you’re an ex-Soviet elite athlete, you’re half man, half pharmaceutical monster. You’ve doped your way to the top. And you know this how? Oh c’mon, it’s common knowledge. You all doped. You had to. You had no choice. They made you to. You know what it was like in the Soviet Union, don’t you?

I do. I do indeed, because I was there.

You? Do you know what it was like? The news you read, the movies you watched. That’s how you know? Books? Had someone written a book about how we doped in the USSR? All of us? Some of us? About the cover ups, about the proverbial all-the-way-to-the-top corruption narrative. About the General Secretary of the Communist Party ordering a nationwide doping program in all sports to show the world we rock and they suck.

I’ve missed that book.

The USSR team time trial squad of Gennady Komnatov, Valery Chaplygin, Aavo Pikkuus, and Vladimir Kaminski took silver behind Poland at the 1975 World Road Championships, held in Yvoir, Belgium. Photo: Cor Vos.

This one time someone said to me, “What about the East Germans?” Years ago a bunch of them came out and said the state had them by the balls and forced them to dope.

I believe that because I know what it’s like to live in a prison that you’re made to believe is the epitome of freedom. Doublethink.

But how you go from what they did in East Germany to what we did in the Soviet Union is hard to explain. The camouflaged argument is: Because the state doped the East German athletes, therefore, the state doped you in the Soviet Union.

If you’re not braindead, you see where the problem is in the argument. They call this a non-sequitur in logic. In English, we say it doesn’t follow. Just because your neighbor drives a Benz, doesn’t mean he’s wealthy. That kind of thing.

If you have an argument, show it. Don’t give me a non-sequitur. Give me an eyewitness account. Someone who knows what he or she is talking about.

Grigory Rodchenkov is it. The guy who took on the Russian sports machine, Vladimir Putin, and his KGB brigade. A hard-ass scientist who stabbed a knife into his heart to dodge prison when he crossed them the first time. He knows what he’s talking about. He was there. The mastermind of the Russian statewide doping program.

Fascinating.

Except it’s not. Not for me. I can smell the propaganda a mile away. Two hours into the film, I get the message coming at me from the screen. Meet the bogeyman, the Russian athlete, the cheating, scheming baddie who steals Olympic medals from your country’s athletes.

Rodchenkov never says that in the film. I can’t even say Bryan Fogel, the film’s director, wanted to say that, because he too never says that in the film. But that’s the beauty of the film art — you can say things without saying things. Sometimes, when you say it like that, the message hits you and stays in your mind carved in your memory forever because you’ve figured out the message yourself without the narrator. It’s not there, but you know it’s there because you can see it buried in the narrative.

What Rodchenkov says, though, is that the cheating, state-sponsored doping conspiracy goes all the way back to 1980 Moscow Games — or even 1968. I don’t know what he knows about doping in 1968 because he was 10 years old in 1968. He mentions an older colleague, Sergei Portugalov, the doping prodigy under the Soviet regime. He could’ve told Rodchenkov something about the conspiracy’s roots, who knows. Thing is, Portugalov was 17 in 1968, and 29 in 1980. The Soviet government sending a 29-year-old scientist to run the national doping program across all sports before the epoch-defining sporting event in the history of the USSR doesn’t match the Soviet government I knew. It could’ve been someone else, someone older than Portugalov. We don’t know, they don’t tell us.

Is he lying? I don’t think so. The guy’s solid as a rock when he talks. He smiles and doesn’t blink when he says: “We’re the top cheaters. To over-cheat us, you have to have much experience.”

Top cheaters. I can hear a note of pride in that. It’s definitely the type of a skill you learn by years of practice.

Grigory Rodchenkov and Bryan Fogel catalogue urine samples, from the 2017 Netflix documentary Icarus.

They have sweeping statements like that in the film. Speaking with WADA officials about Russia’s doping circus, Fogel tells them that Russia had never ever had any anti-doping control in the country. Across all summer sports, he adds.

This is one of the spots in the film where that bogeyman narrative shows up. The Russians have had a free run with doping since the dawn of time. Those Olympic medals they’d won since 1952, they’re all dirty.

This is what ‘never ever’ means in English. This is what sweeping statements do when you say stuff like that. This is why a judge in a court of law will strike down a statement like this and instruct the jury to disregard it.

Because it’s bullshit.

You can’t know how every medal had been won. It’s that non-sequitur fallacy again. Just because a reliable witness told you how he fooled WADA since 2005 doesn’t mean every medal won by Soviet and now Russian athletes is dirty. It might be, but you don’t know that.

This is where it gets personal for me. Every medal since the dawn of time in all summer sports is dirty. Cycling is a summer sport. Therefore, every medal ever won in cycling is dirty.

This is deductive logic. If the premises are true, the conclusion is necessarily true, it’s inescapable. What Fogel’s words necessarily imply is that I doped to win my gold medal.

This is personal now.

This is from the bogeyman narrative about the evil, cheating Soviet pseudo athletes, the same one I heard growing up in the Soviet Union about evil Americans who plot day after day to wipe us out with their neutron bombs. Good news is, you have us, The Party, to look after you. This country you live in, okay, it’s not perfect, but look at the evil America. Here’s a picture of a homeless American sleeping in a bus stop shelter. Here’s a picture of an unemployed American looking for food in a trash bin. See? We told you. Pictures don’t lie. It’s bad.

It’s how they work, the bogeyman stories. George Orwell wrote a manual on it 70 years ago. Tell the crowd how vile the bogeyman is and boom, compared to the bogeyman, we’re doing okay.

Tell the crowd how the Russians never had a clean world-class athlete in the history of sports and hey, compared to that, our own doping programs are almost ethical and we don’t get secrete police involved.

The irony of it, Fogel mentions the absence of clean athletes in Russia at any given time in its history to WADA, an organization set up to ensure fair play in all Olympic sports.

We all want that, the fair play. We want that because if sport is rigged, what’s the point? What’s the point to compete and what’s the point to root for anybody if it’s rigged?

Play fair and tell WADA not a single Soviet and Russian athlete had ever won a clean medal. You know that because you were there or know someone who was there. Play fair, tell them what you know.

It takes two to tango. It takes at least two to play fair.

You want a fair play? Start with yourself. This is what the golden rule is about, the one we don’t live by but we should — treat others like you’d like them to treat you. Try that. Tell us how you went.

That dream I opened this story with, it fell on its ass. I didn’t make it to Seoul. The 1988 Olympic Games went on without me. Probably not a bad thing because the Soviet road cyclists had poo-pooed themselves like never before. They walked away without a single medal, not even a lousy, by our standards, bronze in a team time trial. Total fail.

Like Bryan Fogel, I wasn’t there at the Olympics in Seoul. I can’t tell you how the Soviets prepared for the Games because once the team is selected, no one comes near it. I can’t tell you what they did at the Games because, as I said, I wasn’t there. Fogel and I, we’re in the same boat. Not there.

Rodchenkov’s testimony places us in separate boats. Fogel has a reliable eyewitness who claims that, on his watch as an international anti-doping linchpin, at least half of the Olympic medals won by Russian athletes were dirty.

I’m okay with that, with what he says. Knowing what I know about my motherland, I believe what he says. I believe what he says because I also know what it’s like to compete for a living.

Six minutes into the film, Don Catlin, the architect of modern anti-doping science, says everything you need to know about professional sport: “They’re all doping. Every single one of them.”

He’s not talking about cyclists. He’s not talking about the Russians. He’s talking about professional athletes. The drugs work, he says. He says, with certain knowledge, you can fly under the radar.

Knowledge. You have to know your stuff. Ask Rodchenkov. Ask Michele Ferrari.

That’s the Icarus film for you. Six minutes and it’s over. The rest is a postscript. A bogeyman narrative about a rogue nation. After all, you gotta fit it with the rest of the chorus: the hacking, the election meddling, the whole shebang.

Tell them who they should be scared of. Tell them who are the bad guys. Let our guys shine. Let them bear the flag. Let the Games begin.

The dream, I never forgot my dream. I came into the Soviet national team at the end of 1984 when two Moscow gold medalists were still there — Yuri Kashirin and Oleg Logvin. Djamolidine Abdoujaparov was there. Piotr Ugrumov, remember him? The guy who took on Miguel Indurain in 1994 Tour de France? He was there. Andrei Tchmil, Dima Konyshev, they came in a bit later. I don’t even mention some big hitters with rainbow jerseys to prove their worth who you may not have heard of. It was a long time ago.

That period’s national team was packed with world-class road cyclists. I don’t know how elite cycling teams had been ran abroad. I know how they ran them in the USSR. I was there.

You eat, ride, race, rest, and sleep with the same guys 10 months a year. You walk around naked in front of your roommate all the time because it’s normal. You don’t give a damn. You know everything about everyone. Privacy? We don’t have this word in Russian. Doesn’t exist.

Do you think I would have missed a state-sponsored systematic doping program in the Soviet road cycling national team at that time? I’m not saying no one ever doped. I can’t know that. But I would have known about a state-authorized doping conspiracy if it was in place. I know how thighs and a bum look like after dozens of needle injections, and so do you if you watched Icarus. You can’t hide this living in the open with your teammates.

For me, it’s personal. Today, more than ever before, people grin when they learn about where I came from and what I did as a young man.

They grin and ask if I’ve watched Icarus. I’ve seen it. I know what I’ve seen, and what I haven’t seen.

About the Author

Nikolai Razouvaev was part of the Soviet national team between 1984 and 1990. He won a gold medal in a team time trial at the UCI junior world championships in 1984. Read Nikolai’s memoir about living and racing in the USSR on his blog.

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