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The Russian Affair By David Walsh

Release date: 11th July, 2020
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

List Price: Ł19.99
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Imagine the anger and anguish felt by people who devote their lives to both competing in, and perhaps even winning, an Olympic medal when they discover that one or more of their opponents, often individuals who triumphed and enjoyed the contemporaneous glory, were cheating. It must rankle for years.

Though it’s existed in some form for centuries, drug-taking in sport has become a TV-age phenomenon, either state-driven by countries behaving like recalcitrant children, wishing to show the rest of the world how effective their particular brand of totalitarianism / kleptomania actually is, or else undertaken surreptitiously by individuals who crave fame and fortune.

David Walsh’s latest book, The Russian Affair, which deals with state-sponsored drug abuse, is completely different to his bloodhound-style pursuit of cycling’s Lance Armstrong in his excellent Seven Deadly Sins. For a start, the book’s main protagonists, Vitaly Stephanov and Yuliya Rusanova, come to the author with such a volume of evidence that Walsh is almost compelled to write it.

Stephanov and Rusanova met on a date in Moscow: he worked for Russia’s anti-doping agency, Rusada; Rusanova, meanwhile, was a promising 800m runner who revealed that she wasn’t the only Russian engaged in systematic doping – the whole national athletics’ team was at it. The man at the heart of this deception was Dr Grigory Rodchenkov, a long-time director of an institution known officially as the Moscow Anti-Doping Centre.

During nine years at the MODC, a period that encapsulated five summer and winter Games, the doctor ensured that not a single Russian athlete tested positive for drugs. However, more than 40 Russian athletes have since been stripped of their medals won during Rodchenkov’s time.

Underpinned by an unlikely love story (Stephanov and Rusanova inevitably fall for each other) are a number of scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in a spy thriller as the pair assemble mountains of incriminating evidence. The recording of Mariya Savinova, who won 800m gold at London 2012 and admits to doping, might be a betrayal of a friend, but her admission is vital to the pair’s case – and the greater good.

Not surprisingly the couple decide to leave Russia and today, apparently, they live in exile under assumed names in the United States hoping, no doubt, they’re far enough out of Russia’s revengeful reach.

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