As IOC weighs a ban, Russian athletes protest their innocence

A Russian skier caught cheating during the Sochi Olympics protests his innocence as the International Olympic Committee prepares to announce whether the entire Russian team will be banned from the next Winter Games.

Banned cross-country skier denies claims of steroid spray, switched urine samples

Cross-country skiier Maxim Vylegzhanin won two silver medals in Sochi but the IOC has ruled he cheated, banning him for life. He says he is innocent. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

Russian skier Maxim Vylegzhanin made two trips to the podium at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and basked in national pride each time a silver medal was hung around his neck.   

As one of Russia's most decorated Olympians in Sochi, his success on the cross-country track in individual and team events made him a Russian sporting hero, validating years of competitions and endless hours of practice.

Now he's been told he must return the medals and endure the disgrace of being labelled an Olympic cheat — banned from future Winter Games for the rest of his life.

He says he's not prepared to accept that.

"I did not violate anything and I'm a clean athlete," Vylegzhanin told CBC News in Lillehammer, Norway, where he was practising for the second World Cup ski event of the season.

Maxim Vylegzhanin's suspension for doping was lifted in time to start the 2017/2018 season but then quickly reinstated. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Vylegzhanin is part of an expanding list of Russian athletes — 26 names and counting — who have been sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee for what it claims was a "systematic conspiracy" involving Russian athletes,  anti-drug regulators and senior officials in Vladimir Putin's government to falsify doping results during the Sochi games.

On Tuesday, the IOC will make one of its most important rulings in recent memory when it decides whether to ban the entire Russian team from the upcoming Pyongchang Olympic Games in February.

IOC accused of fabricating evidence

In advance of the ruling, Russian athletes and government officials have been striking an increasingly belligerent tone, accusing the IOC and its doping investigators of fabricating evidence and waging a political crusade against Russia.

Vylegzhanin had been under a provisional ban by the International Ski Federation, which was lifted in time for the start of this current World Cup season.

They talked about some kind of cocktail with alcohol, well I never drank anything like that- Maxim Vylegzhanin, Russian cross-country Olympian

He competed in an event in Finland and then moved on to Lillehammer, where he agreed to a lengthy interview with CBC News, in the hopes that a last-minute change of heart by sporting authorities would allow him to compete in South Korea.

"I'm ready to answer any questions," he said.

It's difficult to square Vylegzhanin's denials with the extensive and, in the IOC's opinion, damning, evidence brought forward by investigators.

Russian government said to have sanctioned cheating

The IOC's independent inquiry headed by Canadian professor Richard McLaren concluded that scores of Russian athletes, including Vylegzhanin, were put on a protected list drawn up by officials in Russia's ministry of sport.   

Prior to their competitions, the IOC claims those athletes were given a drug concoction by the head of Russia's doping lab, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov. The steroid mixture was administered through an unusual alcohol-based mouthwash. The drugs would be absorbed into the body and purportedly enhanced an athlete's endurance.

McLaren's report claims the key to making the scheme successful was the cooperation of athletes.  
On Tuesday, the International Olympic Committee will decide on whether to ban the entire Russian team from the next Winter Games in South Korea. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

In advance of the Olympics, they had to provide a drug-free, clean urine sample to doping lab officials, aided by members of Russia's secret police, who would later surreptitiously swap out the dirty ones, passing the containers through a mouse-hole in a lab wall.

Vylegzhanin denies he ever swished the mouthwash nor provided a urine sample for the purpose of cheating on a drug test.

"They talked about some kind of cocktail with alcohol, well I never drank anything like that."

He called the idea of putting anything like that in his body on ahead of a major competition, "a fairytale."

Russian cross-country ski coach Oleg Perevozchikov says if his athletes were cheating on doping tests, he would have known about it. (Pascal Dumont)

His long-time coach, Oleg Perevozchikov, who's known Vylegzhanin since he was in elementary school and who monitored his training and competitions prior to the Olympics, says he's certain he did not cheat.

"(Vylegzhanin) gave samples thousands of times before the Olympics, on the eve of Olympics, during Olympics and right after the Olympics," he told CBC News.

"At other tournaments after the Olympics he also gave samples and all were always clean. How did it become not clean now?"

IOC says samples tampered with

A key element of the doping scheme,  says the IOC, was the supposedly un-openable containers containing urine samples. Somehow FSB agents were allegedly able to find a way to unscrew them. Some of the containers contained scratches or marks signifying they were tampered with, the IOC says.

Vylegzhanin says the IOC claims his urine samples were among those that were tampered with, and he disputes this.

"They made an expert examination of my containers but they didn't find any evidence that would prove 100 per cent that they were tampered with. They can't confirm this," said Vylegzhanin.

Perevozchikov says, if the cheating were as widespread as the IOC suggests, he would have seen some evidence of it, but never did.

"What I will tell you, during all years of my work with the team, no one of the representative of sports federation, no one of the representative of any other kind of department come to us, to offer to us, didn't ask to do some manipulations with the samples of my athletes."

Athletes knew, IOC says

The full reasons and evidence behind Vylegzhanin's suspension haven't been made public, however in a statement Friday, the International Ski Federation (FIS) said his case is similar to that of a cross-country teammate who was suspended.

Alexander Legkov's decision was published last week.

In that ruling, the IOC panel discounted the notion that an athlete could have unintentionally participated in the doping coverup without realizing it.

With regards to the use of the mouthwash or providing a urine sample, the IOC says, "Athletes could not have been ignorant as to what they were doing."

Nor, says the ruling, could they have thought the purpose was for something innocuous.

"It would have been impossible for the athlete not to understand that the aim was not a legitimate one."

Russians believe they were targeted

Within Russia,  there is deep suspicion about the findings of the report by Richard McLaren. While many Russians appear willing to accept that athletes cheated in Sochi — both their own and other nationalities – few seem to believe the conspiracy penetrated as deep into Putin's government as McLaren claims.

Vylegzhanin's supporters have organized a social media blitz to try to get him reinstated, featuring a moving testimonial from his mother.

In a Youtube video, which has more than 700,000 views, she is seen showing pictures of him growing up and working hard training.

"I don't believe it at all," she says into the camera of the cheating claims. "Maxim has always been honest and fair."

Not swayed

However, the IOC along with the International Ski Federation, have shown no signs of being swayed.

Two days after the CBC's interview with Vylegzhanin in Lillehammer,  the ski federation reinstated its ban. He would not get to compete in the World Cup event he had been training for, nor any other events this season.

Even before that ruling, Vylegzhanin said the controversy was taking a heavy emotional toll on him.

"Of course, inside there is some kind of psychological barrier that doesn't let you give it your all because you think, well, what if we're doing it all for nothing," he said

The rest of Russia's Olympic hopefuls no doubt feel a similar weight,  as they await Tuesday's IOC ruling.


Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a national reporter for CBC News on radio, TV and online, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.