The 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics officially rank as the “cleanest” in history: Not a single medal-winner or athlete was disqualified for doping. But, behind the scenes, the KGB was busy switching urine samples. This practice, similar to one later exposed at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, was used not only for Soviet athletes, but for all participants in the Games.
The preparations for the July 19 - August 3 , 1980 Summer Olympics, the first to be hosted in the Soviet Union, took place not only in various Soviet sports committees, but, also, in the Lubyanka, the Moscow headquarters of the State Security Committee, or KGB.
In 1977, the KGB’s Fifth Directorate, which handled domestic security issues, created the Eleventh Department. Officially, its task was “to disrupt subversive actions by the enemy and hostile elements during the preparation and holding of the Olympics.”
But, in reality, the Eleventh Department’s employees also worked in the Moscow Anti-Doping Laboratory, which had been accredited for the Olympics just two weeks before the event started on July 19, 1980.
Sixty-year-old Konstantin Volkov, who won a silver medal in pole vaulting for the Soviet Union at the Games, still remembers his own experience with being tested for steroids.
When he came to hand in his own urine sample, Volkov said, a laboratory employee told him, “We throw all this out.” The man handed Volkov another container of urine.
“I said, ‘Well, I don’t have anything [in my urine]. I’m not scared.’ He said, ‘We don’t need accidents, so, go turn this one in.”
When the young man asked if all athletes in the Games, including his competitors, were doing the same, the lab employee confirmed it. “Yes, everyone the same; no exceptions,” Volkov remembers him as saying. “No one will have anything” in their sample, the man added.
Two of retired KGB Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Popov’s former colleagues were accredited to work in the anti-doping center during the Olympics.
“They filled the containers [of urine] that allegedly were from the athletes,” recounted Popov, who handled sports journalists at the time. “Naturally, they didn’t have any doping, and that’s how these samples were clean.”
“And if some kind of sample was really taken from an athlete in order to guarantee that there’d be nothing there, the samples were simply replaced with obviously clean ones,” he added.
Anti-doping measures had first begun in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. By 1975, the International Olympic Committee had banned anabolic steroids, the drug often used with Soviet athletes. The next year, at the Montreal Summer Olympics, 12 athletes were disqualified for using these steroids.
But within four years, in Moscow, not a single disqualification for doping occurred.
At the time, Moscow was under more than ordinary pressure to ensure that no scandals besmirched the Games. The United States and 64 other countries had decided to boycott the Olympics to protest the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
With “the whole world” watching, recollected the state-run Moskva 24 TV channel, the Soviet government was determined to succeed, and “exclude all elements of chance, foresee everything, think through everything.” Soviet citizens essentially were told to look on the Games as if beholding “their own future.”
And, in at least one way, they were.
Thirty-four years later, Russia again hosted an Olympics, this time in winter, in the Black Sea port city of Sochi. Again, the mood was triumphant. But the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) later announced that the Russian special services had switched Russian athletes’ doping samples to avoid detection of performance-enhancing drugs.
“A protected winter Olympics competitor likely to medal did not have to worry about his or her doping activities,” the WADA wrote in its 2016 report on the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. “They could dope up to, and possibly throughout, the Games as they could count on their dirty sample being swapped at the Sochi Laboratory.”
Those switches were “a remake, let’s put it that way, of what there was in the ‘80s,” commented Popov. “The experience of those years was used at the Sochi Olympics.”
In this way, drily observed Soviet TV sports commentator Valentin Shcherbachev, “they are supporting the traditions of victory at any cost.”
The parallels also appear to extend to the decision-making process.
The World Anti-Doping Agency asserted that Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko and his deputy, Yury Nagornykh, had known about the Federal Security Service, today’s equivalent of the KGB, switching Russian athletes’ urine samples at Sochi.
In 2016, Moscow Anti-Doping Laboratory Director Grigory Rodchenkov acknowledged the existence of a state-run doping system for Russian athletes.
Similarly, in 1980, the USSR State Sports Committee used a “special program” that provided steroids to those athletes who, in their coaches’ opinions, had the best chances for a brilliant sports career, score well, and win at major competitions, noted Popov.
The program was implemented “under the strict control” of the State Sports Committee’s medical team and the relevant team doctors, he added.
In 1980, then 20-year-old Konstantin Volkov was one of those promising Soviet athletes. Half a year before the Moscow Games, he had won gold in the European Championships. He was seen as a potential Olympic gold medalist.
During the 1980 Summer Olympics, he told Current Time, representatives of the doping program suggested that he use anabolic steroids.
“They had me come in with my coach, my father,” Volkov recalled. He said he was told that he needed to go through “a special drugs program to win a gold medal.”
“But we refused because, first of all, we didn’t know how this works with pole vaulting” or how it would impact a pole vaulter’s technique, Volkov continued. “They said, ‘OK, it’s on you. If there’ll be a failure, then you’ll answer for your actions.’”
“The team doctors, the senior coaches, everyone was in the loop about this,” he added. “The entire program was state-run.”
No Russia-based participants in the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics confirmed to Current Time the use of doping at the Games. Both Volkov and Popov now live abroad.
The Russian Sports Ministry’s Olympic Committee refused to comment on the two men's allegations to Current Time. The Sports Ministry itself had not responded by the time of broadcast.
Soviet TV sports commentator Shcherbachev, though, recalls East Germans confronting him at the Moscow Games about Soviet doping, speculating that the steroids came from the KGB.
At the time, he said, he thought it was a provocation.
Overall, Soviet athletes won 195 medals, including 80 golds, in the 1980 Moscow Olympics – the highest medal count for any of the 80 participating countries.
Since doping tests first began in 1968 at the Mexico City Summer Olympics,
athletes have been found positive for steroids at each Olympics, except in Moscow.
Seventy-one-year-old Olympic sabre fencing champion Viktor Krovopuskov, who won two of his four Olympic gold medals at the 1980 Summer Olympics, believes that athletes’ cautiousness alone explains why no doping was detected at the Games.
“Well, it’s obvious that the leadership spelled it out to athletes from other countries that there will probably be a pretty thorough check,” Krovopuskov said. “For that reason, they didn’t uncover a single case [of doping] -- because there weren’t any.”
In the history of the Olympics, a fencer has never been disqualified for doping. Krovopuskov sees no reason to believe that doping ever existed in the sport.
On Soviet teams, though, the athletes may not have known what pills they were being given, commented Popov.
At a Stanley Cup competition between Canada and the USSR, he recollected, the Soviet hockey team doctor gave the players what he claimed were “vitamins.”
“He said, ‘Guys, here’re some vitamins for you,’” said Popov, who, then working in Canada with the USSR hockey team, witnessed the scene. “They relied on ‘vitamins,’ not knowing what it was. These were steroids – at that time, anabolic.”
The hockey players were told that the “vitamins” were a “necessary pharmaceutical aide.”
One Olympic gold medalist in weightlifting recalls that doping was so widespread in Soviet sports in the 1980s that some athletes even managed to make money off the drugs.
The body-building steroid methadrostenol could then be obtained in the Soviet Union for about 2 rubles; based on the official Soviet exchange rate, about the equivalent of $2. But abroad, “it cost at least $10 to $15,” remembered 58-year-old Israil Arsamakov, who won a gold medal in weightlifting at the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics.
In 1984, Soviet weightlifters Aleksandr Kurlovich, Leonid Taranenko, and Anatoly Pisarenko were caught at the Canadian border with anabolic steroids that they intended to sell at an international weightlifting competition in Canada, Arsamakov said. The three young men were disqualified from the event.
“The scandal was enormous. This was all known and carried out and everything because there was no money …” he recalled.
“So, it’s as if we don’t understand anything,” continued Arsamakov, a former Russian Weightlifting Federation president. “We say that the Americans are doping. Yes, they are caught, but when they’re caught, this isn’t a government situation.”
“But with us, everything is happening at the highest level. You come to the team, and everything is already ready there. "
Soviet or Russian athletes may not be the only athletes who indulged or indulge in doping, commented retired KGB officer Popov, “[b]ut when it comes to the Soviet Union or today’s Russia, this was a state-run program.”
As a result, it has had repercussions for all Russian citizens.
This February, Konstantin Volkov’s 15-year-old son, Matvey, set a new world record in pole vaulting (5.50 meters) for the under-16 age group. But at the next Summer Olympics, in Tokyo in 2021, the young Volkov, a Russian citizen, plans to represent Belarus.
“There’s no possibility now to compete in any capacity” for Russia or as an individual Russian athlete, commented the elder Volkov, who coaches his son.
In December 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency imposed a four-year ban on Russia participating in or hosting any major international sports competitions, such as the Olympics. The decision came after the WADA’s 2016 report about Russia’s use of state-backed doping and manipulation of samples for anti-doping tests.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev rejected WADA’s position as “a continuation of the anti-Russian hysteria that has already grown chronic,” TASS reported.
The restrictions, though, have only continued. Russia this month failed to pay a $6.3 million fine for anti-doping violations to World Athletics, the international governing body for running and track and field competitions. That means that Russian athletes, like Matvey Volkov, may no longer be able to compete as so-called “neutral” athletes or as an official team in such events.
World Athletics is expected to make a final decision at the end of July.
-This article is based on a July 16, 2020 report by Current Time corespondent Aleksei Aleksandrov and senior writer/producer Ivan Grebeniuk. The online story includes additional reporting by Current Time correspondent Volodymyr Runets in Kyiv .