At 9.30am Swiss time on Monday morning the Court of Arbitration for Sport will meet in Geneva to begin hearing the cases of 39 of the 42 Russian athletes who have challenged their lifetime Olympic bans following doping offences at the 2014 Games in Sochi. The star witness will not be present.
Dr Grigory Rodchenkov, the whistle-blower whose evidence helped to expose Russia’s alleged state-sponsored doping programme, will testify via video link or phone from a secure location, presumed to be in the United States.
Rodchenkov’s reluctance to attend in person is entirely understandable. Russia have thus far submitted two requests to Interpol for arrest warrants for their former director of anti-doping as well as demanded his extradition from the US to face criminal charges.
Those requests have failed but Rodchenkov's supporters are worried. They believe there is a very real threat to his life. And they can hardly be accused of paranoia when Russian officials such as Leonid Tyagachev, the head of Russia’s Olympic Committee from 2001 to 2010, are publicly suggesting that “Rodchenkov should be “shot for lying – like Stalin would have done.”
Nor when ex-colleagues of Rodchenkov are dying of heart attacks at 52, as happened to Nikita Kamaev, two months after he resigned as head of RUSADA, the Russian anti-doping agency, in 2016.
Jim Walden, Rodchenkov’s lawyer, certainly isn't taking any chances. “Russia is a determined adversary with a long track record of violence against its political opponents,” he told Telegraph Sport when asked whether he felt his client’s life was at risk.
“And it’s obvious that Dr Rodchenkov is at or near the top of the Russian hate list. So I don’t think one can be too careful in the circumstances.”
Bryan Fogel, director and star of Icarus, the Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary which told Rodchenkov’s story, is of the same opinion. Fogel says he is “extremely concerned” that Rodchenkov’s security may be at risk.
In an exclusive interview with the Telegraph prior to a screening of Icarus in London, Fogel – sitting alongside the film’s producer Dan Cogan and businessman Bill Browder, a supporter of the film – even said he was concerned by the independence of the US witness protection program, given President Trump’s alleged links to Russia.
But he was positively incredulous at what he perceives to be a lack of full support from the IOC and WADA for Rodchenkov in the face of threats to the whistleblower from his homeland.
“The IOC could change all this by Thomas Bach [President of the IOC] saying, ‘If anything happens to Grigory Rodchenkov, Russia is banned from the Olympics for the next 20 years,” Fogel said. “He could say that, and it would be the right thing to do if you want to protect the Olympic ideal. He won't do that.”
Walden, who has called on Bach to resign, went even further: “Given how weak the IOC has been, I believe Vitaly Mutko [Russia’s former sports minister and now deputy prime minister] could shoot Dr Rodchenkov in the head in front of Thomas Bach and Bach would still let Russia back in to the Olympic closing ceremony in South Korea.”
Why, they both ask, would any whistle-blower be incentivised to come forward given that lack of support?
Rodchenkov, Fogel says, risked his life to provide a huge amount of evidence, including allegations that he helped athletes to cheat by developing a cocktail of banned drugs known as “The Duchess”, and that agents from Russia’s security service, the FSB, helped to switch clean urine samples for drug-tainted samples. These claims were corroborated by Professor Richard McLaren in his report in 2016. Yet, despite an international outcry, it took the IOC until last month to ban Russia from next month’s winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. And even now they are allowing almost 400 Russian athletes to compete under a neutral flag.
“They [the IOC] had no problem banning Kuwait on human rights violations,” Fogel said. “If this was any other country outside of the US and Russia, and possibly China, they would have no problem banning them. But it’s Russia. They are the largest contributor to the IOC. They spent $50 billion on those Sochi Games. So when it comes to Russia, they won’t stand up. There’s too much money, there’s too much corruption, there’s too many people with too much s--- on each other.”
Browder says he knows how Rodchenkov feels. The American-born British financier is the CEO and co-founder of Hermitage Capital Management, an investment fund that was formerly the largest foreign portfolio investor in Russia. After a lengthy battle against Russian corporate corruption, he is now public enemy No 1 in Russia.
“I don’t feel safe, no,” he said. “They’d love to kill me, too, if they could get away with it. But they can’t kill me in broad daylight. They have to kill me in a plausibly deniable way.”
He believes, though, that Rodchenkov is safe for now. “If Putin wants to do something to Grigory he will wait until all the hoopla dies down and then, when nobody is paying attention, he will do something. That’s how he operates.”
Walden says he has no qualms about his client testifying at this week’s hearings. He believes the security measures in place would make it "impossible or next to impossible" that anything could happen to Rodchenkov. But he warns: “At some point, his usefulness as a witness is going to come to an end and he’s going to have to find a way to live a normal life. He is going to be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life.”
Asked for a response, a spokesperson for the IOC said: “We are concentrating on making sure that clean Russian athletes should be able to compete at the Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, whilst the guilty will be banned for life. It is somewhat strange that a lawyer, especially one from the United States, would not understand the concept of individual justice.”
Icarus is available now on Netflix