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How Canadian law professor Richard McLaren uncovered Russia’s doping conspiracy

Richard McLaren, a Canadian law professor, at home in London, Ont., on July 21 2016.

IAN WILLMS/NYT

Before entering a conference room at his London, Ont., law firm, Richard McLaren turns off his phone.

"This is just far too easy to track," McLaren says, waving the device about. "In fact, I can track your phone from here. I have that equipment."

The 71-year-old author of the report that has roiled the Olympic movement no longer uses public WiFi – he travels with his own portable router. He doesn't make calls from the tarmac – "One place you should never, ever use your cellphone is at an airport." And he has adapted his schedule so that he is at his desk when Russian security operatives are not at theirs – "They don't seem to work on weekends."

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He comes by this paranoia honestly. During the course of his seven-month investigation into state-sponsored doping in Russia, his staff were followed, his computer systems were steadily attacked and his students at Western University of Western Ontario were approached.

"It's all been a bit like a spy story," he says brightly.

He's wearing a double-breasted jacket and a tie festooned with prancing Santas. There is a little bit of Ian Fleming to his elegantly rumpled presentation. Clearly, he has enjoyed the cloak and dagger.

"When I took this on, I thought, 'Well, this isn't going to be too hard and it's not going to take too long," he says. "Quite the contrary."

It began last May. McLaren, a long-time member of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, was part of an investigative commission probing Russia's track-and-field team. As that inquiry wound down, a more alarming controversy presented itself. A former head of Russia's anti-doping control lab, Grigory Rodchenkov, accused Moscow of fixing the Sochi Winter Olympics. The details – bottles of urine being passed from an official testing laboratory to a shadow lab built alongside; comprehensive cheating across all disciplines; security services handling the operation – were so fantastical as to hardly be credible.

"I said to myself, 'This is just nonsense,'" McLaren says.

But the accusation struck at the heart of the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) mission, and the accuser was impossible to ignore. The New York Times published Rodchenkov's story on May 12. A week later, the WADA asked McLaren to head an independent investigation into the matter. His mandate was to determine if a state-sponsored doping program existed in Sochi, but also to follow the trail of evidence wherever it might lead.

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McLaren was on his way to France at the time. He asked that the first dossier of information be couriered to him there. The WADA refused. An official flew from Los Angeles to Paris and handed him the package of documents in a hotel lobby.

There is a great deal of what followed that McLaren will not talk about specifically. He remains concerned about incriminating witnesses. The most important of them – whom he calls CW1 (Confidential Witness One) – is the first person he spoke to. They spent two days together somewhere in California.

"At the end of those two days, I was shocked," McLaren says. "I started to think, 'This is way bigger than I thought.' And I still didn't know what the reality of Sochi was at all."

Who is CW1? A Russian? An athlete?

McLaren shifts uncomfortably in his chair.

"I can't say too much because while you might not think it significant, there are a lot of people who can pick up cues if I say very much. I am not saying anything for his protection."

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As the case wound on, McLaren would be reminded repeatedly that he wasn't just investigating Russian authorities; on some level, he was competing against them.

After being convinced by CW1 that the investigation's premise was well founded, McLaren and his team began what he calls the "spadework" of aggregating information. Again, he won't say much about what he found or where he found it. His evidence trove contains databases, hard drives, e-mail chains and phone data.

That cache remains in his possession, hidden around the world. Only three people know where all of it is. Eventually, it will be turned over to the WADA in its entirety.

McLaren based his team in London, England. The first stage of the investigation was a two-month race to release an interim report before the beginning of the Rio Games. The International Olympic Committee needed that document in order to decide if and how Russia was to be punished.

McLaren played two major roles in affecting Russia's Olympic entry. Based on the earlier probe he'd been part of, the International Association of Athletics Federations had decided to expel all Russian track athletes from Rio. There was a process under way considering whether or not to lift the blanket prohibition. McLaren shared some of his early findings with that body, convincing the IAAF to uphold its total Olympic ban. This may have been the point at which Russia became seriously worried.

"I don't think [Russian authorities] saw this coming," McLaren says. "I think they thought they could tough it through with 'deny, deny, deny' and that it would go away."

It didn't.

McLaren's first report – released in mid-July in Toronto – substantiated most of Rodchenkov's claims. Russia had manipulated the doping control systems at Sochi on a pervasive scale. McLaren named Russia's FSB (Federal Security Service) as a conspirator.

In short order, he had made himself a rather large target.

The Russians seeded his July news conference with tame journalists. He was asked why he hadn't interviewed any Russians in Russia in person. McLaren recalled another of his cases, one in which he'd spent hours questioning Vitaly Mutko – an acolyte of President Vladimir Putin and formerly Russia's minister of sport. "We found that information and that process singularly unhelpful," McLaren said. It got laughs in the room. One can imagine how well this was all going over at the Kremlin.

At the time and since, McLaren declined to suggest what sanctions might be appropriate.

("I don't really think punishment works very well," he says now on the topic generally. "Punishment works in the sense of deterrence. I get the deterrence part. But punishment as a corrective action as it concerns the individual isn't very effective.")

In the end, the two branches of the Olympic movement – the Games and the Paralympic Games – chose opposite paths. The IOC created a complicated protocol under which Russian athletes (excluding the track competitors who were under a total ban) would have to prove they were clean in order to participate in Rio. The International Paralympic Committee banned the Russian team en masse.

The Olympics rolled around. Many Russians competed. The country finished fourth on the medal table. The controversy continued, as did the investigative work.

From the outset, McLaren's core team of six had taken precautions so their work could not be intercepted. Their communications were protected with cutting-edge software and "special equipment." Many conversations were face to face. They didn't pass anything sensitive in e-mail.

"We had some attempts at interference," McLaren says vaguely.

Such as?

"Following. You get a sixth sense, I think, that something's not right. It was pretty obvious in this particular case, though there was never any direct contact."

What do you do then?

"You report it and don't repeat your patterns. Change hotels. Change the places you go. Everybody that could potentially be involved did that."

Regular efforts were made to infiltrate the team's computer systems, including the kind of phishing schemes that undid the Democratic National Committee. McLaren's security team told him that most of the incursions were attempted during the workday, Moscow time.

"They …" – and McLaren can't be sure who "they" are – "don't seem to work on weekends. They have predictable patterns. You can stay away from them."

How did you use that?

"We did some things when we thought they were off."

McLaren's day job is teaching law at Western University in London. Three of his students helped with basic research on the interim report. McLaren thanked them by name in the document.

"In retrospect, that might not have been such a great idea," he says.

Two of them – as well as other students of McLaren's – were approached on Facebook and through e-mail.

"Questions were being asked like 'Who is this guy McLaren?' 'Do you like him?' I think they were trying to get the goods on me, but there's nothing to find."

At any point were you worried?

"Oh yeah, it certainly crossed my mind from time to time," he says, not sounding terribly worried.

Was the WADA or anyone else worried?

"I don't know," McLaren shrugs. "I never asked them. I'm sure they were."

Whatever danger existed, it was far greater for his sources, most of whom remain unnamed. They included people who'd been participants in the doping scheme. Most of those he spoke to were no longer based in Russia.

There were by McLaren's estimation four kinds of witnesses. The first group refused to co-operate. The second wanted written questions that would be replied to in writing. Those offers were refused – "Who knows who's writing the answers back?"

A third group agreed to be interviewed on Skype.

"It's very hard to track Skype," McLaren says, nodding suspiciously in my direction. "Say, compared to that phone you've got there."

In some of those cases, McLaren believes there were other people in the room, feeding answers to the interviewees.

A fourth group "engaged for a while and then got frightened and disengaged. I suspect they got a visit."

McLaren's team issued their final report on Dec. 9. It's the size of a novel. It determined that Russia had profoundly corrupted the fair play ethos of amateur sport in a scheme that stretched back years and involved as many as a thousand top athletes.

"It was a cover-up that evolved from uncontrolled chaos to an institutionalized and disciplined medal-winning conspiracy," McLaren announced.

Once again, it was the details that shocked. Samples had been diluted with table salt and instant coffee. In one case, urine submitted by two female hockey players in Sochi contained male DNA.

The grand scale of the con, and its boldness, created a popular wave of recrimination against the IOC. How could they have been so lenient in Rio?

McLaren has some regrets on that score. In the main, he's been discouraged that the focus of animus has fallen on accused cheaters rather than the system that created them. In the wake of his report, the IOC opened new investigations focusing on specific competitors.

"They turned it into a hunt for individual athletes," he says. "That wasn't my work. That wasn't what I was doing."

He maintains a remarkable sympathy for many of the Russian athletes caught up in the doping program. He mentions runner Yuliya Stepanova, a doper turned whistleblower and now a pariah at home. Stepanova has said that if she turns up dead, "all of you should know it's not an accident."

"Does [Stepanova] have a choice? She's got a dream. She wants to be in the Olympics," McLaren says. "Of course, you have a choice not to do it, but realistically is that the choice that's going to be made given the dream? Probably not. And particularly when you have people who are in positions of trust like coaches and trainers who are pushing it on you. That makes it very hard to resist."

Last week, Russian officials admitted for the first time that the bulk of what McLaren reported is true – there was a widespread doping conspiracy. However, they continue to insist the key finding – that it operated at a state level – is wrong.

How high does McLaren think this reached? As far as Putin?

"We don't have any evidence of that," McLaren says. "Looking at it from the other side, if you were going to build this system, you wouldn't build it so that the top people actually knew about it. But on the other hand, the FSB is the federal security police. They operate centrally. We know they're involved. Draw your own conclusions."

Though the investigation is finished, McLaren continues to gather clues. Since the report was published online a month ago, he's received more contacts from people involved.

"I'm not sure where that is going to ultimately lead," he says. "At this point, they are primarily interesting stories."

Russia continues to send out mixed signals. Officials have acknowledged the problem – if not its extent. They've also named former champion pole vaulter and loud WADA critic Yelena Isinbayeva the new head of Russia's anti-doping agency.

"It's an unusual choice," McLaren says drily.

In the end, it's up to the IOC to decide what further measures to take – if any.

Though he is the central figure in this drama, McLaren has little sense of what those may be. It wasn't until the final report was issued that he received a phone call – the first one he's ever got – from IOC president Thomas Bach.

"[The IOC] didn't think it was going to amount to anything," McLaren says. "They thought, 'Who's this character from London, Ont.? What's he going to be able to accomplish?' If it didn't amount to anything, there was no reason to have any contact.

What do you imagine they think of you now?

"I think probably a lot of people wish it had never happened, that either commission [the track and Sochi investigations] was ever carried out," he says. "Because once you put one of these in place, you never know where it's going."

He is hopeful that Russia's effort at change is sincere. However, he has limited trust in the mindset of Russian officialdom or its ability to rein in a program gone rogue before the government got involved in the cover-up.

"The moral compass isn't the same on the whole in Russia as it is in this country," McLaren says. "Ethical standards? They have them. But they also quite regularly don't observe them."

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