Mystery surrounds swopping of samples

Grigory Rodchenkov says Russian officials somehow figured out a way to remove the cap without breaking it, allowing him to replace the steroid-tainted urine of top athletes with clean urine.
Grigory Rodchenkov says Russian officials somehow figured out a way to remove the cap without breaking it, allowing him to replace the steroid-tainted urine of top athletes with clean urine.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • They are about 5cm wide, squarish, and 13cm tall. They hail from the Toggenburg valley of north-east Switzerland, and they are held in the highest regard by experts around the world.

They are glass bottles used to hold athletes' urine samples, and they are central to the account of a former Russian anti-doping official, who says that the host country executed an elaborate doping operation at the 2014 Sochi Olympics - imperceptibly switching out drug-tainted urine from the squat containers long thought to be tamper-proof.

"I tried to break into these bottles years ago and couldn't do it," Don Catlin, the former head of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory, said. "It's shocking."

The bottles, used for testing at the Olympics since the Sydney Games in 2000, are made by Berlinger, a Swiss company founded in 1865 as a mechanical cotton weaving mill.

Until this week, they were largely ignored vessels in the global fight against doping.

Now they are prominent characters in an extraordinary ploy that affected the results of the Winter Olympics, according to Grigory Rodchenkov, who ran Russia's anti-doping laboratory for a decade.

According to him, Russian officials somehow figured out a way to remove the cap without breaking it, enabling him to replace the steroid-tainted urine of top athletes with clean urine, stockpiled in soda bottles and other containers in the months leading up to the Games.

The mechanics of how the feat was pulled off are a mystery to Rodchenkov. "I truly believed this was tamper-proof," he said in a recent interview with the New York Times in Los Angeles, holding a clear Berlinger bottle with a blue stripe in his hand.

"This is like a safe. I cannot think how to get under this."

Berlinger bottles come in sets of two: one for the athlete's "A" sample, which is tested at the Games, and the other for the "B" sample, which is used to corroborate a positive test of the "A" sample.

Metal teeth in the "B" bottle's cap lock in place, so it cannot be twisted off.

"The bottles are either destroyed or retain visible traces of tampering if any unauthorised attempt is made to open them," Berlinger's website says about the security of the bottles.

Rodchenkov said that for at least 15 Russian athletes who won medals at Sochi, both the "A" and "B" samples were substituted before they were tested. None of the bottles' caps - which are branded with unique seven-digit codes - showed any signs of having been opened.

Catlin theorised that heat had been applied to remove the bottles' caps.

He said he had expressed some concern about the bottles years ago, asking if they could be outfitted with internal thermometers, to show if the sample had been frozen or heated. "But that's just a wild guess," he said.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2016, with the headline 'Mystery surrounds swopping of samples'. Print Edition | Subscribe