The 2013 track and field world championships in Moscow offered an indelible impression of the Russian athletic psyche.

Every day, walking into the leafy surrounds of Olympic Park involved passing an outdoor gym where dozens of muscle-bound men and women completed pull-ups, press-ups and myriad core-strengthening exercises. Most had 'ski mogul' abdominal muscles.

Only their face muscles were neglected. I never saw a smile amid the plethora of cold eyes and pursed lips. It was more self-flagellation than enjoyment; extra punishment to endure at the hands of a merciless state.

It takes little to extrapolate this into theories of an overriding national obsession with doping. Win on the international sporting stage, or return to Siberia to a cul-de-sac of a life.


Nothing can afford to disrupt the alchemy. Any sporting activity behind what was once the Iron Curtain must turn into gold. In Borat-speak, it's brought allegations of "dodgy learnings of chemistry for make benefit glorious nation of Russia".

The hardship engendered by centuries of fighting and resilience, in a country fluctuating across the political and class spectrum, means any gateway to relative freedom is preferable. The conditions to dope couldn't be more fertile.

Grigory Rodchenkov, director of Russia's anti-doping laboratory, resigned a day after being accused of concealing positive doping tests, extorting money from athletes and destroying 1417 samples.

In the aftermath, President Putin said, "Russia must do everything it can to eradicate doping". The words will prove hollow if the cheating is shown to be state-sanctioned.

Should that be the case, such a recidivist country must be removed from the Rio Olympics for their brazen efforts to ruin sport with a patriotism-at-all-costs approach.

Start with track and field and work through other sports, as and where evidence emerges. Barristers could mount a strident defence in the Court of Arbitration for Sport about breaching personal liberties for Russians who haven't doped, but the overarching issue is that the allegations revolve around systemic cheating.

Even the Olympic committee headquarters, adjacent to Luzhniki Stadium but behind a 2m-high wrought-iron wall, channels protection. It is a 1970s concrete monstrosity which looks capable of withstanding nuclear attack.

Russia is a country which can charm, particularly if you learn the language as this writer did at secondary school. However, a darker side detracts from genuine goodwill. For every gesture of assistance, a shop assistant, office manager or member of security staff will fix you with bleak, robotic eyes and grunt in monosyllables.


Russia's dilemma appears not so much a language problem as a cultural one. Those looks seem to mask fear; a fear of showing initiative, spirit, weakness.

History offers a clue, given the deprivation endured defending the country against Hitler's Germany in World War II and the poverty of the aftermath.

The Soviets also defended themselves internally during Stalinist purges where death or banishment to gulags was routine. Why wouldn't their athletes be opportunist?

Russia (and formerly the Soviet Union) has been besieged by war, pain and suffering. The communist ideal, which drove the revolution to overthrow the Tsarist regime in 1917, never materialised. Mikhail Gorbachev did his best to instigate social reform in the late 1980s but, under Putin, repression returned.

I roomed with a couple of army captains on their way to Vladivostok on the trans-Siberian train in 2007.

They were devotees to Putin's regime but also possessed the mental and physical scars of war. Andrey's brother had been shot by a Chechnyan sniper and a grenade had blown off half Sergei's right hand during the same conflict.

Such hardship underlines that life cannot be taken for granted. Russian track and field cheats probably feel the same. Winning curtails the creep towards an inferiority complex.