Secrecy and Fear Reign at Russian Training Camp

Published: 15th November 2015 08:27 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th November 2015 08:27 AM   |  A+A-

Since the World Anti-Doping Agency accused Russia of a vast, "state-sponsored doping" conspiracy on Monday, the country's officials have been at their dissembling best. But there is one major problem even they will admit, and it is all to do with a state-of-the-art training centre in a sleepy town 300 miles east of Moscow.

"If we talk about those points in the report, they amount to practically nothing," Vadim Zelichenok, the head of the Russian athletics association, said on Wednesday. "But yes, we recognise Saransk."

The capital of the republic of Mordovia, Saransk boasts a recently beautified town centre with a 25-metre fountain; a new football stadium, being built for the 2018 World Cup; and on the outskirts the Viktor Chegin Centre for Olympic Training, a bulging, glass-fronted building and track-and-field facility which is the alma mater of multiple Olympic gold medallists in race walking. Russia has come to dominate the sport, and up to 50 world-class athletes are in training here.

The Victor Chegin Centre - named after the coach who founded it two decades ago - is due to open a new swimming pool to the public. But it was less keen on welcoming The Telegraph last week.

The press secretary was evasive. "The athletes and trainers have left for a training camp in Sochi so there is no one to talk to," he said.

On the condition of no photographs, The Sunday Telegraph was granted a very brief tour of the facility - limited to a large press room with framed photographs of visiting officials, including sports minister Vitaly Mutko, who was criticised in the Wada report as being 'complicit' in state-sponsored doping, and the new swimming pool.

"Everything here is working as normal," Sergei, a staff member who refused to give his surname or job title, said. He was keen to usher me away. The staff's reticence is because Wada's report says Saransk is at the centre of a systematic doping effort backed up by obfuscation, intimidation, and harassment that would hardly be out of place in a paperback thriller. Methods employed here are extraordinary.

As recently as June 2, Wada says, Sergey Nikitin, a coach at the centre, tried to obstruct unscheduled drugs tests by lying about the presence of targeted athletes at the centre: ordering athletes to complain about the notification time recorded on the tests, and intimidating the testing officers by shouting at them. Six athletes in that visit tested positive for the banned blood-booster EPO.

In another case, described to the International Association of Athletics Federations in March, an inspector accused an unnamed coach of arranging for police to trail him after he took samples, with the apparent intention of preventing him from taking them out of the country for testing in Lausanne.

"I left the hotel by the window during the night in order to take another train (I left the light and the TV working in a room, so they could imagine I'm inside), and the police were waiting at the station in Moscow, [so] I had to do my best to avoid them and to deliver the samples to another person," the officer said in his testimony.

The samples eventually made it to Lausanne, where four of them tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. But not before the inspector's mother had received threatening phone calls. Then, there is the apparent treatment of athletes at the facility. During the June visit, one witness told Wada that at least one athlete appeared to be "scared" and several appeared to be "not acting of their own free will." But the scandal here long predates Wada's report.

A gifted coach, Chegin has transformed Saransk into the racewalking capital of Russia, if not the world, churning out gold medallists at unprecedented rates.

Success has brought fame. Chegin a household name in Saransk, as are his proteges: the Olympian legends including Olga Kaniskina and Valery Borchin, who both won gold in Beijing in 2008, and Elena Lashmanov and Sergei Kirdyapkin, who took gold in London 2012.

But even here, that success began to raise eyebrows. "There's long been rumours that something was going on. Mordovian champions just kept on winning things," Alexander Rozakin, a local taxi driver, said.

All four of the gold medallists above have since received bans for doping, and they're not alone. At least a dozen athletes trained by Chegin are believed to have failed drug tests.

It was Lashmanova's disqualification last summer that seemed to spur the Russian Anti-Doping Agency into action, and there have since been a series of high profile investigations - and disqualifications - of staff and graduates of the centre.

In July, Chegin himself finally quit as head coach after Rusada launched yet another joint investigation into his activities. The Telegraph requested a comment from Chegin via the training centre, where he no longer works. No response was  received before publication.

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