Codename Duchess: Why the McLaren report matters

The Olympic Rings outside the Lee Valley VeloPark velodrome are a reminder of the 2012 London Games

The Olympic Rings outside the Lee Valley VeloPark velodrome are a reminder of the 2012 London Games (Image credit:

While many readers may be focused on finding out who the 'more than 1000' athletes are that may have been involved in the Russian state-sponsored doping scheme, the second part of the McLaren report demonstrates that this conspiracy was well above the pay grade of your average athlete. The fate of the actual cheating athletes is now in the hands of the international federations like the UCI.

The vast Russian conspiracy to subvert the anti-doping system first came to light when German reporters with ARD aired a documentary on doping in Russian athletics in 2014, but the second part of the independent investigation's report reveals even more startling details including the fact that the investigators relied on forensic analysis because of the "level of fear among direct witnesses".

The investigation also employed "a firearms and toolmarks examinations expert from a UK based, internationally recognised, forensic testing organisation" to demonstrate how doping control bottles could be opened without detection.

Last, in addition to all of the details already published on sample-swapping, part two reveals that the very researcher who developed a test for steroids used in anti-doping laboratories was also developing drug cocktails that could go undetected by it.

Russia instituted the scheme to boost Olympic medal tally

According to the McLaren report, the scheme began after Russia's disappointing performance in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where they fell a distant 11th in the medal table—they had only three golds compared with eight in 2006. Its gold medal tally had been falling in the Summer Games, too.

In 2011, the McLaren report revealed, eventual whistle blower Grigory Rodchenkov had a 'period of illness', during which WADA questioned Russia's Ministry of Sport about his absence and threatened to install a foreigner in his position as head of the WADA-accredited Moscow Anti-Doping Laboratory. Rodchenkov was restored to his position.

Phase 1: Disappearing positives, codename Duchess and the London Olympics

Rodchenkov began implementing a 'disappearing positive' methodology, wherein positive tests for Russian athletes analysed at the Moscow laboratory were reported in WADA's ADAMS system as negative. Over 500 results were switched using this method. Through this system, doped athletes were effectively screened so they would not test positive when competing outside of Russia.

In 2012, Rodchenkov's group published a "breakthrough" report on detecting prohibited steroids in urine, but according to the McLaren report, his team was simultaneously secretly developing a cocktail of steroid drugs with a short detection window to evade doping controls. Using this cocktail, codenamed "Duchess", athletes could dope without testing positive in any lab worldwide that was using Rodchenkov's own test.

This included the 2012 London Olympic Games, during which no Russians tested positive. But, in re-analysis with this new information, 11 Russians' London samples have tested positive, and retesting of the 2012 samples is still ongoing.

To date, the only cyclist found positive in the re-rests from London was track sprinter Ekaterina Gnidenko.

There was a vulnerability in the system, however, because it used the formal doping control kits that have an audit trail. When WADA requested in September 2012 for Moscow to send along 67 pre-London A and B samples, they had to figure out how to not get caught. Rodchenkov swapped out or tampered with the A samples he knew would test positive, but could not open the B samples.

Phase 2: Breaking the seal and the Sochi Games

To get around the problem with the doping control audit trail, those pesky seals on the sample bottles had to be removed. According to the report, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) was employed to devise a way to open the samples without detection.

This method was tested in the Universiade Games in Kazan in 2013 and Athletics world championships in Moscow, and finally employed in the Winter Olympics in Sochi to swap out dirty samples for clean ones and continued until the ARD report and WADA's unannounced visit to the Moscow lab in December, 2014.

The numbers and possible cycling involvement

All in all, 695 Russian and 19 foreign athletes "can be identified as part of the manipulations to conceal potentially positive doping controls," according to the report. Their information has been forwarded to WADA to then go onto the various sporting federations such as the UCI.

25 Russian athletes from 16 winter, summer and Paralympic sports were on a "dirty sample list".

246 athletes knowingly participated in the sample swapping programme by providing clean urine in advance which falls under the WADA Code 2.5 rule against tampering.

More athletes could join the various government agents, sports coaches and officials and anti-doping laboratory personnel in violation of WADA Code 2.8/2.9 against conspiracy, though the violation "depends upon evidence within the control of the international and national federations and Russian officials".

Cycling seems underrepresented in the possible positives that may come out, based upon a list of samples swapped, but there were alerts about positives from the 2013 Russian Track Cycling National Championships in St. Petersburg, as well as mentions of road cycling and mountain bike samples from a mass of e-mail exchanges about screening samples that led to the "disappearing positives".

It now falls on the UCI to process any potential positives or other anti-doping rule violations.

The UCI stated today that it is "fully committed to investigating and pursuing any case that might concern cycling".

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Laura Weislo
Managing Editor

Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Managing Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. As former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks. Laura's beat is anti-doping, UCI governance and data analysis.