Russia’s lab wizard created drug cocktails but caught cheats

MOSCOW (AP) — Even as he worked to cover up doping by Russian athletes, Grigory Rodchenkov was developing technology which would help to catch them years later.

The former head of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory is the star witness for the World Anti-Doping Agency investigator Richard McLaren, whose report Friday accused Russia of operating a state-backed doping program which covered up more than 1,000 tainted drug test samples, including for medalists at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

However, Rodchenkov’s role in helping catch drug cheats isn’t widely known outside a small circle of the world’s leading anti-doping scientists.

Methods devised by Rodchenkov and his former assistant at the lab, Timofei Sobolevsky, to detect two common steroids have become a crucial weapon for drug testers in a wave of retesting carried out this year by the International Olympic Committee, though some dispute the Russians’ work.

So far, 62 athletes — almost half of them Russians — have been disqualified from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics in IOC retests after testing positive for turinabol, a banned substance which Rodchenkov helped make much easier for labs to find in samples.

There are also six cases involving oxandrolone, another steroid on which Rodchenkov carried out research, though all but one of those also tested positive for turinabol, a black-market steroid developed in the old East Germany which bulks up muscle and has plagued global sport for decades.

“Even if they are old and quite well known substances, there is continuous research on the metabolic behavior of these substances,” said Tiia Kuuranne, head of the laboratory in Lausanne, Switzerland, which handles retests for the International Olympic Committee.

“These advances are the ones that lead to these kinds of breakthroughs or leaps in doping control.”

Those who tested positive for turinabol in IOC retesting competed for 10 different countries, mostly in the former Soviet Union, and range from Kazakhstan’s Ilya Ilyin, who used his record-breaking weightlifting career to build a following of 400,000 on Instagram, to a Belarusian runner and a Russian wrestler. Many of them deny doping, including Ilyin.

The key advance was the discovery of new turinabol metabolites, the chemical traces left when complex steroids break down in the human body. Turinabol produces a wide range of metabolites, some of them quickly flushed out of a doped athlete’s system, others which can linger for much longer.

If the steroid can be detected for longer, drug testers can catch dopers who ended their steroid use a few weeks before a major event like the Olympics, expecting they could never be caught.

“It’s very non-sexy science to find these metabolites, but it’s really cool what it can do, so many dopers. It’s just amazing,” says Marcus Ericsson, director of a WADA-accredited lab in Sweden.

Research conducted in 2011 by Rodchenkov and Sobolevsky found six new metabolites….