We were somewhere around Brentford in west London trying to find the GlaxoSmithKline building and the taxi fare was eating into the last of our independent documentary budget.
It was June 2012, a few weeks before the opening of the London Olympics, and part of our mission was to explore exactly how fool-proof the anti-doping programme would be at those summer Games. Also knowing full well it would never be – which is why the documentary was called Faster, Higher, Stronger, a purposely cynical play on the old Olympic motto given all the temptations of modern sport.
It also turned out to be a sort of prequel to Bryan Fogel’s 2017 documentary Icarus, and might also have won us an Academy Award, except they wouldn’t allow me to take EPO because my blood values were already too high, and it was possibly still a little too soon to safely track down a Russian whistleblower such as Grigory Rodchenkov.
Anyway, part of the deal for London 2012 was bringing pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline on board as sponsors of the anti-doping programme, with the promise of the most rigorous if not fool-proof testing in Olympic history. Then UK culture secretary Jeremy Hunt publicly declared to make it “the cleanest Olympics ever”. There would be 6,250 tests, on over half the number of competitors, including all three medallists in every event, each sample tested for 240 banned substances within 24 hours of being taken.
“If people are cheating in London, and it is detectable, then we will detect them, and they will be ejected from the Games,” said Jonathan Harris, head of anti-doping at London 2012. At GlaxoSmithKline, Kerry O’Callaghan sounded equally defiant: “We are very hopeful that people won’t cheat,” she told us, “but we are very confident that if they do, they will be caught”.
By the closing of those London Games, on August 12th, they’d found just nine adverse findings from those reported 6,250 tests, including Belarusian shot putter Nadzeya Ostapchuk, who was later stripped of her gold medal, and Ghofrane Mohammad, a Syrian hurdler from Aleppo.
To some, this was evidence of perhaps the cleanest Games in modern Olympic history; to others, something clearly didn’t add up. Exactly seven years later, things are looking a lot different, the number of positive doping cases resting (for now) at 132, more than Beijing 2008 and Athens 2004 combined, surely making London the dirtiest Games of the lot. And they’re still not done cleaning up yet.
What has happened since? Under World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules, all samples can be retrospectively tested eight years after being taken (in 2015 this was increased to 10 years), which means London still has exactly one more year to go! (No one loves a countdown more than the Olympics).
The International Olympic Committee has delegated the management of all this to the International Testing Agency, who appears to be doing a far better job second time round.
Last week Artur Taymazov, the freestyle wrestler from Uzbekistan, had the honour of becoming the 60th athlete from London 2012 to be sussed out retrospectively, and the seventh gold medallist so far to be told give it back, and 24th medallist in all. Taymazov is at least consistent, already stripped of his gold medal from Beijing 2008, again thanks to retrospective testing, although this hasn’t done him much reputational damage, as he is currently a member of Vladimir Putin’s party in the Russian parliament.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport has also had its say on revising many other results from London, Turkish 1,500m runner Asli Cakir Alptekin now banned for life after a third doping offence, Russian race walker Sergei Kirdyapkin also stripped of his 50km walk gold medal, which resulted in Rob Heffernan being promoted to bronze, albeit four years after the event.
Still many other Russian medallists might have got away with it if it wasn’t for Rodchenkov, who we know now had inside information (or at least a tour of) the anti-doping programme in London, his ambition to get away with even more at the Winter Games in Sochi two years later, the plan a more modern version of Mike Tyson handing over his wife’s urine.
Instead, Rodchenkov later came clean with that accidentally starring role in Icarus, only after the 2015 Wada Independent Commission which proved, among other things, “a deeply rooted culture of cheating” in Russian athletics, and, by likely extension, in other sports too. That prompted the memorable line from Dick Pound, the former head of Wada, when telling a band of journalists in Geneva that the Russian athletics federation had essentially “sabotaged” the 2012 London Olympics, such was their “widespread inaction” against athletes with suspiciously obvious doping profiles. “It’s worse than we thought,” said Pound, a man who usually feared for the worst when it comes to doping.
Only if Russia sabotaged London 2012, it performed a serial killing act on Sochi, the Richard McLaren report presenting evidence of widespread state-sponsored drug use, implicating some 1,000 Russian athletes who competed across 30 sports (including football) from 2011 to 2015, in some cases with little fear, it seems, of retesting.
It could be argued that London may yet be presented as one of the cleanest in Olympic history, depending on how many more cheats they weed out before that eight-year window closes next August. There is also some not unreasonable hope that all this retrospective testing may represent a sort of turning point and act as a further deterrent to any athlete thinking of cheating at next year’s Tokyo Olympics, with that retesting window now open for 10 years. Would you chance taking something if that substance could still be tested for in August 2030?
These retesting numbers may also provide some example for other major sporting events. Fifa carried out 626 tests during the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and not a single player returned a positive result. At the last Rugby World Cup in England in 2015, 200 in-competition samples were obtained from all 20 participating countries, and again the number of positive results amounted to zero.
Were their anti-doping programmes any more fool-proof at that time, knowing full well they could never be?