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Olympic bobsleighers: The four Britons who waited five years for bronze

Russia president Vladimir Putin’s popularity with voters soared after the Sochi games

A presidential playground with a $50bn budget, disguised government agents, secret sample swapping and an elaborate Russian plot to dominate on the global stage.

A retrospective look at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics reads like a script for a James Bond or Mission Impossible film. Even the International Olympic Committee was duped, hailing an “exceptional” event and its “message of peace, tolerance and respect”.

But six years on we know – via the McLaren report – that Russia operated a state-sponsored doping programme between 2011 and 2015. As a result, the country has been stripped of 19 Olympic medals won by cheating over that period.

Somewhere in the middle of all the deception were a bunch of British bobsleighers dubbed the ‘meatwagon’ who in November last year were finally awarded bronze medals after originally finishing fifth in Sochi.

BBC Sport has followed the team of John Jackson, Stu Benson, Joel Fearon, Bruce Tasker and performance director Gary Anderson since they formed as a group in 2011.

Now they finally know the success of their story – achieved despite odds stacked against them in the most startling way. Theirs is a tale of optimism corrupted by suspicion, and of disappointment transformed into joy. Eventually.

Bobsleigh requires speed and strength. The muscle mass that provides the latter results in bulky athletes who also help generate more momentum as they career down the ice. As a result, Fearon decided ‘meatwagon’ was the perfect name for their heavyweight foursome. Fearon, a former sprinter, describes himself as the “baby” of the group, “excitable” and “cocky”.

“We had such an amazing bond,” he adds. “Jacko was super-serious and we’d call him granddad. He’d come from the marines so he’d always make sure we were on our game.

“Bruce (Tasker) was like a giant robot who’d never forget anything and always deliver, then there’s Stu (Benson), who was the most emotional – if anyone was going to cry first it would be him.”

When they formed in 2011, the GB set-up was unfunded. Although Jackson – Royal Marines – and Benson – Royal Air Force – were paid by their respective armed forces, Fearon and Tasker had no such funding and money was tight for all.

From left to right: Benson, Fearon, Tasker and Jackson – pictured at the World Championships of 2013

“You knew going into bobsleigh at that time you’d end up in debt,” says Welshman Tasker, who worked part-time as waiter and needed help from his girlfriend to pay his rent.

To cut costs the team would hire trucks and drive their sleds between venues overnight all around Europe. It was one of many elements that brought the group together, although Tasker recalls one dramatic flashpoint.

“We’d just had a big crash at a track in Winterberg on TV, so we were all bruised and pretty miserable on this long drive back from Germany to the UK for Christmas,” he says.

“It was about 2am and Jacko had been driving for about 14 hours when we had a massive blow-out on a tyre and veered across three lanes of the motorway. He somehow kept us from smashing into the central reservation and I went: ‘Wow Jacko, that was the best driving you’ve done all day’. He didn’t take that well. Not at all.”

Fortunately, night driving was reduced when UK Sport stepped in to provide funding after the team finished 10th at the 2012 World Championships.

And results improved further still. In December 2013 they won a landmark World Cup silver medal, before repeating the feat at the European Championships of January 2014.

With one month to go before Sochi, hopes were high. But nobody could have imagined just what they’d be up against.

With a budget of over $50bn – more than 25 times Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics spend – president Vladimir Putin was leaving nothing to chance in his mission to show Russia as a 21st Century sporting superpower.

Sochi 2014 was the first time the nation had hosted an Olympics since Moscow 1980, when the summer Games were overshadowed by boycotts and protests following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Sochi aspired to achieve a very different legacy. It was supposed to signal the start of a golden era for Russian sport, four years before the nation hosted the football World Cup.

Arriving in the host city with a week to go, it was hard not to be overwhelmed by the scale of it all.

Organisers had created two entirely new resorts – one in the mountains for snow and sliding sports, plus another coastal cluster on the Black Sea, predominantly for indoor events.

It was impressive. But it soon became clear appearances didn’t tell the whole story.

Grigory Rodchenkov speaks to BBC sports editor Dan Roan in February 2018

There were lighter moments, which ranged from water running yellow out of hotel taps, to athletes hacking their way though bathroom doors,