Russia doping: ‘Criminals try to cover up. This was different...’

Günter Younger, the hardened cop who headed the investigation into doping in Russian athletics, tells Matt Majendie that what really shocked him was the blatant indifference to cheating

Matt Majendie
Wednesday 18 November 2015 16:57
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Ten days ago in Geneva, Günter Younger sat stony faced as 323 A4 pages laid bare the damning level of doping and corruption in Russian athletics. He did not speak a word, nor did he need to; the chief of the new cybercrime department of the Bavarian Landeskriminalamt merely giving a simple nod of the head as the World Anti-Doping Agency independent commission chairman Dick Pound flagged up the importance of his role.

The former head of Interpol’s drugs division is the unsung hero of the Wada report and effectively the chief architect of how Russia’s sporting status has unravelled on the world stage in the past week and a half.

“What I found really sad is the reputation of the sport,” says Younger, a budding sportsman in his younger days and keen All Blacks fan thanks to his New Zealand wife. “There are so many athletes that commit their time to the dream to win something yet feel betrayed. I’m dedicated to help them get their dreams which is why I took this opportunity.”

Younger is no stranger to illegal substances. A police officer for 26 years, his first job was in investigations to uncover clandestine drug operations in his native Germany.

As the subsequent head of Interpol’s drugs unit, he helped uncover the smuggling of 2.5 tonnes of cocaine in Liberia and a similar stash from the Ivory Coast, as well as help break a drug-smuggling ring in Nigeria where, as he puts it, “the kingpin was hiding the drugs in cans and smuggling them to Europe”.

In addition, he was the liaison between the United States Anti-Doping Agency and French authorities in the investigation into Lance Armstrong, which first brought him into contact with Pound.

“He was president of Wada at the time and he approached Interpol about making countries more aware of doping as it wasn’t really a priority for many of them,” explains Younger. “He asked if Interpol could coordinate meetings and bring law enforcement agencies together on this topic. As the head of drugs I was given the project and the first case was Lance Armstrong.”

It was that work which helped Pound decide Younger was the man to lead the investigation into doping in Russian athletics. The respect between the pair is clearly mutual, Younger describing Pound “as a hero of the doping fight”.

Younger was effectively handed a free rein to uncover the truth as he saw fit, the other commission member Richard McLaren giving him the thumbs up to use the covert recordings from the German ARD documentary – some of which was aired on TV and some of which has yet to be broadcast.

Aside from that, he just used the power of the word. “I can normally seize stuff or make confiscations or do wiretapping but with this it was just interviewing,” he says. “There’s so much that is said and unsaid, people don’t really know face to face when they’re making a mistake.”

He has lost count of the number of interviews done but some resonate more than others, his grilling of an unnamed athlete a case in point. “We met face to face and she was saying, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong’,” he recalls. “But she was just furious. She made the excuse she had a competition but that behaviour is indicative of something wrong.

“Often it’s the things that are not said that are important or just one simple thing like a coach saying he knew nothing but then letting slip he knew an athlete had been given drugs by a manager.”

Younger thought his career in policing had prepared him completely when tasked with the job which effectively gave him just four months from February to June in which to conclude his part of the investigation. To hit such a tight deadline he did not have a single day off, much to the chagrin of his wife.

“I’ve worked in organised crime for more or less 30 years and usually they cover up crimes and disguise as much as possible,” he says. “But this is different. I remember one coach saying to me, ‘whatever you do, nothing will happen, nothing will change’. In some ways that was the most surprising thing that it was all there.

“So after that, my objective became clear. I said to myself, ‘let’s do something to change something properly’. Hopefully this brings out more whistleblowers and makes some changes.”

Not alone in the quest, he had about eight co-workers on the project ranging from investigators to analysts and report writers. Younger found evidence of Russian coaches and athletes blatantly doping at training camps while the Wada independent commission was ongoing.

He calls the obvious nature of it “disrespectful” but also insightful into the systemic character of the doping. He adds: “I’m usually very cautious and, when I’m investigating criminals, usually they disguise their paths but we heard from athletes saying, ‘I don’t care as nothing will happen as usual’.”

One of the most damning pieces of evidence in the report were the head of the Wada-accredited laboratory in Moscow Grigory Rodchenkov destroying 1,417 test samples over the course of the weekend knowing Younger’s team would be investigating the following week.

Rodchenkov has since been removed from his role and remains adamant the samples were only destroyed as Wada did not specify what to do with them.

“He says our letter was ambiguous but I had language experts verify what we’d written beforehand and it was quite clear,” he says. “And if it was ambiguous why did he not contact us or destroy the samples when we were there?”

The full impact of Younger’s work has yet to be felt. The French authorities are still in the midst of their own investigation into the International Association of Athletics Federations and allegations that former IAAF president Lamine Diack and the organisation’s ex-head of anti-doping Gabriel Dollé took bribes in order to cover up failed tests.

It was the German investigator who decided to pass on the intelligence to Interpol and later the French prosecutors. “One thing we had to discuss was what to do with that,” he says. “Do we publish it in the report or will that just mean nothing happens? I decided I wanted them to face a judicial process on this. I’m really pleased we did as the French seem to have brought it to really good success. I’m glad they took the case and made it public.”

Depending on the outcome of that, the independent commission will make more revelations before the end of the year, although Younger is not at liberty to say what they might be. Will they be as explosive? “What I will say is that if there is something to be found, we will find it.”

There is the threat that more clean individuals will get caught up in the collateral damage from the ongoing investigations. Younger argues there are “good, trustworthy, hard-working people” both at the IAAF and RUSADA (the Russian Anti-Doping Agency) but that the widespread impact is a necessary evil.

“Not everyone is bad and I feel sorry for them,” he says. “But you have to make a deep cut and you have to destroy the chain. I hope it will lead them to make changes.”

His work virtually done on the latter part of the investigation, Younger is now back to his day job in Bavaria much to the relief of both his boss – “he didn’t want me to do this and said I could only do it because of 20 years service and on the assurance I’d come back” – and his wife.

“She likes me now she has me back,” he jokes. “She was in Hong Kong when the report was published in Geneva and said to me, ‘I can see you on TV.’

“For many months she was very patient but she says it was well worth it for the result. For me, considering the impact that this has had, the velocity and efficiency, this is the best thing I’ve ever worked on, the No 1.”

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