When Moscow hosted the 1980 Summer Olympics, games were being played not only in Soviet arenas but at the headquarters of the KGB.
The Kremlin was determined to host an untarnished event after the United States and 65 other countries boycotted the 1980 Olympics over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the secret police were heavily involved in the effort.
On the surface, they succeeded.
The Soviets performed like champions in Moscow, winning 195 medals, including 80 golds, enough to top the medal count. And the 1980 games stand alone today as the cleanest on record — the first and only since the testing of Olympic athletes began in 1968 to not disqualify a single athlete for using steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs.
But Soviet athletes and former members of the KGB allege that the Soviet authorities were using dirty tricks to boost performances while maintaining the appearance of a clean competition.
In a scheme that bears some resemblance to the state-sponsored doping program that Russia employed to boost its performance when it hosted the scandal-plagued Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014, the Soviet authorities allegedly oversaw a broad effort to tamper with athletes’ drug tests.
In 1977, the KGB’s Fifth Directorate, which handled domestic security issues, created the Eleventh Department. Officially, the new entity’s task was “to disrupt subversive actions by the enemy and hostile elements during the preparation and holding of the Olympics.”
In reality, the employees of the Eleventh Department also worked in the Moscow Anti-Doping Laboratory, which was accredited for the Olympics just two weeks before the games kicked off on July 19, 1980.
‘We Don’t Need Accidents’
Konstantin Volkov, who won a silver medal in the pole vault for the Soviet Union at the 1980 games, told Current Time that when it came time to hand in his urine sample for testing, an employee at the Moscow lab informed him that “we throw all this out” and handed him a different container already filled with urine.
“I said, ‘Well, I don’t have anything [in my urine]. I’m not scared,'” according to the 60-year-old Volkov. But the former pole vaulter said the lab employee insisted that “we don’t need accidents, so go turn this one in.”
When asked if other athletes, including from the 70 other countries competing in the games, were doing the same, the lab employee confirmed that they were.
“Yes, everyone is the same; no exceptions,” Volkov recalled the lab employee saying. “No one will have anything [in their samples].”
Retired KGB Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Popov told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, that two of his former colleagues were accredited to work in the Anti-Doping Laboratory during the 1980 Olympics.
“They filled the containers [of urine] that were purportedly to be from the athletes,” said Popov, who handled sports journalists at the time. “Naturally, they didn’t have any positive doping tests, and that’s how the samples were clean.”
In the event that an athlete like Volkov actually provided samples, they were “simply replaced with obviously clean ones,” Popov added.
Efforts to uncover doping among Olympians first began at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. By 1975, the International Olympic Committee had banned anabolic steroids, which were often used by Soviet athletes. The next year, at the Montreal games, 12 athletes were disqualified for using steroids.
Yet despite the expanded effort to catch drug cheats, not a single athlete was caught doping in Moscow four years later — a result that contrasts sharply with a 1989 report by the Australian parliament that alleged “there is hardly a medal winner at the Moscow Games, certainly not a gold medal winner…who is not on one sort of drug or another: usually several kinds. The Moscow Games might well have been called the Chemists’ Games.”
The Kremlin was under extraordinary pressure to ensure that no scandals tainted the Moscow games, the first Olympics hosted by a communist country, and on which the Soviet Union had spent an estimated id=”listicle-2646453422″.3 billion.
With the “whole world” watching, state-run Moskva 24 TV recollected recently, the Soviet government was looking to “eliminate all elements of chance.”
Soviet citizens, meanwhile, were essentially told to consider the games a view into their own future. And in the sphere of sports doping, they were.
First Moscow, Then Sochi
Thirty-four years later, the Kremlin was once again playing host to the Olympics, this time in winter, in the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi. The 2014 Winter Olympics, won by Team Russia, was held up at the time as a symbol of Russia’s return as a sporting powerhouse and arrival as a tourism destination.
But those victories were soon tainted by allegations that Russia’s security services had been swapping out Russian athletes’ urine samples to avoid the detection of performance-enhancing substances.
“The Winter Olympics in Sochi debuted the ultimate fail-safe mechanism in the Russian’s sample-swapping progression,” concluded a 2016 independent investigation commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). “A protected Winter Olympics competitor likely to medal did not have to worry about his or her doping activities. They could dope up to, and possibly throughout, the games as they could count on their dirty sample being swapped at the Sochi Laboratory.”
Russian officials have never accepted the conclusions of what is commonly called the McLaren Report, and have engaged in a drawn out battle with WADA that continues to this day.
While Russia escaped a ban from the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the fallout from the scandal resulted in the suspension of the Russian Olympic Committee in 2017, preventing Russian athletes from competing under the Russian flag in South Korea in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Tens of Russian athletes were banned from international competition, and 13 medals won in Sochi were stripped from Team Russia.
Most recently, the failure by Russian authorities to cooperate fully with WADA’s investigation into the Moscow lab and the country’s state-sponsored doping program led the international anti-doping watchdog in 2019 to impose a four-year ban on Russia participating in or hosting any major international sports competitions, including the Olympics.
Popov told Current Time that the tampering in Sochi was “a remake, let’s say, of what there was in the ’80s…. The experience gained in those years was employed at the Sochi Olympics.”
He added that in 1980 the U.S.S.R.’s State Sports Committee had a “special program” that provided steroids to athletes who, in their coaches’ opinions, had the best chances of winning.
In 1980, then-20-year-old Volkov was seen as a potential gold medalist in Moscow, having won the European Championships just months before.
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.'”
This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.