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.
“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.
There were lighter moments, which ranged from water running yellow out of hotel taps, to athletes hacking their way though bathroom doors, and on a personal note, waking up at 3am to discover I was sharing my room with a rat.
Then there was serious danger, such as when GB bobsledder Rebekah Wilson narrowly avoided certain death by almost walking into an empty lift shaft, and the discovery of hundreds of stray dogs that had been killed by organisers in order to ‘clean up’ the area.
The military presence added an extra level of unease.
“It was so heavily armed. Sealed buses, snipers all over the place, vehicles being searched… knowing you were always being watched was really quite bizarre,” says Royal Air Force technician Benson.
“At the time we just thought, ‘this is Russia, this is how they do things here’, but now you think well, if ever anyone was going to cheat the way they did, then they created the perfect place for it to happen.”
Jackson was suspicious too.
“The Russians had disappeared from the international circuit three weeks before everyone else. We just put it down to home advantage and getting a bit more time on their track,” recalls the Royal Marines commando.
“They’d been much slower at starting than us, but then come the Games they were right on us, which was a real jump. It was nagging at me.”
Then there were further concerns during the Games when teams were turned away from the track before a training session because of a “military exercise”.
Benson, who suspected Russia had been having additional secret training sessions, adds: “It all just contributed to making the atmosphere more intense than you expected.”
The four-man bobsleigh event took place over the Games’ final two days, by which point much of Sochi had become a party scene, with all but a small group of athletes finished competing.
After the first run, the British team were 10th. They improved two further places by the end of the first day. The team’s performance director Gary Anderson believed his team could climb into contention, but had noticed something curious.
“I could see that all the athletes were heading off the track in one direction, but the Russian athletes would go in the opposite direction,” he says.
“I was just thinking ‘what’s down there?’ because it’s a prohibited area with no access for anyone else other than the Russians and officials with access-all-area passes.
“At the time you put it down to home advantage and maybe a different changing room, but now I’m thinking it was probably a lot more sinister than we thought.”
The final day of the Sochi Olympics began with a beautiful sunrise. There was a genuine feeling of celebration among the Russian fans I joined en-route to the sliding centre. The Brits were happy too. Skeleton slider Lizzy Yarnold’s gold already meant Britain had a record-equalling four medals. One more from the bobsleigh crew would make history.
Now late February, it was warm in Sochi. Up in the mountains, several of the ‘secret’ sniper positions had been revealed by the melting snow. Their occupants – the Russian military – had taken up new homes, moving BBC Sport and other broadcasters from their presentation positions for the final day to make room for soldiers on the venue rooftops.
Security was so tight because Putin was back to witness what he hoped would be another Russia gold, one that would confirm their place at the top the medal table before the closing ceremony later that evening.
The 39-year-old bobsleigh veteran Alexander Zubkov, a friend of the Russian president, duly delivered as he piloted the hosts to victory. Jackson and his team came agonisingly close. They missed out on third place by just 0.11 seconds. They finished fifth – with another Russian team in fourth.
“It was tough, but there was a lot of pride because we’d pushed ourselves until our bodies fell apart and did it for one another,” says Jackson.
“At the time we thought we’d been beaten by four better teams. But I remember standing at the finish and although I couldn’t quite put my finger on it something just didn’t feel right.
“I didn’t want to come across as a sore loser so I just smiled, did my interviews and went to celebrate with the guys because it was still a great result given everything we’d been through and where we’d come from.”
The real story of that race wouldn’t emerge for another two years though. When it finally did, the details were scarcely believable.
The McLaren report, published in July 2016, revealed how Russia engineered an “unprecedented doping programme” to help their athletes cheat between 2011-2015.
Hundreds of Russians were banned from the Rio 2016 Olympics, with a second report in December that year providing more details, stating that over 1,000 athletes from the nation had benefitted.
Immediately the team’s thoughts turned to those 0.11 seconds.
“We wouldn’t say it at the time as we didn’t want to get too excited if it didn’t come true, but all four of us were looking at one another early on and there was kind of an acknowledgement that we came third,” says Tasker.
Fearon’s approach was slightly different. He was adamant they would be moved up to bronze and “had two or three massive parties” before buying a replica medal.
The International Olympic Committee finally revised the official results in March 2019 – following the lengthy reanalysis of samples from Sochi 2014, and various Russian appeals.
Jackson, a royal marine commando who has served in conflict zones and witnessed real horrors, admits he was moved to tears by the news.
“I hadn’t seen it that morning as I was at work and when my wife phoned me I just couldn’t speak – I literally had no words. For 15 minutes I was just sobbing,” he recalls.
“It was a combination of letting all that frustration and anger out, after years of uncertainty, combined with the relief that it was finally over.”
For Tasker, confirmation made for an especially touching moment as he had been forced to retire from the sport and missed the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics after suffering a minor stroke in 2017.
“I was working for a health tech company as an office manager and was just opening up when I had the call from Gary (Anderson),” he says.
“I loved the fact I was by myself because I was quite emotional. I just sat there grinning to myself when everyone came in, but didn’t say anything until I got home to celebrate with my family.
“I didn’t get to leave the sport how I wanted, but it was special to finally have something like this to show for my career.”
However, once the elation had passed, anger and frustration took over as the four realised what they had truly been denied – the chance to celebrate on an Olympic podium together at the Games themselves.
“We’ll never get that moment back,” says Jackson while shaking his head.
“We should have shared that as a team and with our families and we were all denied that, while the Russians were celebrating something that wasn’t theirs.”
This may be the end of the ‘meatwagon’ story, but the Russian doping saga is still playing out.
The latest twist has seen Russia handed a four-year ban from all major sporting events, which includes the Tokyo 2020 summer Olympics, Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and 2022 football World Cup – subject to an appeal.
Jackson, Tasker and Benson are now retired from the sport. Fearon is still competing, but because of funding issues is spending the current season on-loan with the Swiss national team to earn enough money to carry him through to the next Winter Games.
Medals mean money. And that fifth place in Sochi meant the GB Bobsleigh team did not receive as much from UK Sport as they might have.
“A medal in 2014 would have completely changed my life and that of all my team-mates,” Fearon says.
When the four finally did get their hands on bronze – at the 2019 Team GB Ball in London in November – it wasn’t without another twist.
Jackson, Tasker and Benson were in playful mood upon arrival, having settled any pre-presentation nerves with “a pint or two… or maybe three” in a local bar on the banks of the Thames.
When Fearon joined, the three couldn’t help but observe how the sprinter – despite being the fastest man ever to push a bobsleigh – always managed to be late.
It was an emotional evening, and there were plenty of tears. Anderson looked on with pride. “Six years for this moment, it’s – well, I’m struggling to keep it together to be honest,” mumbled the former performance director as he reached for a tissue.
But within moments of stepping off the stage, they noticed something.
With the Russian team refusing to return the Sochi medals, the IOC issued new sets for the reallocation ceremonies. There was a mistake. The inscription read ‘bobsleigh four men’ when it should have been ‘bobsleigh four man’.
“You know what, it’s almost typical that after all this time they couldn’t even get that right,” Jackson says.
“To have a typo just sums up the whole farcical situation we’ve been through.”
Article courtesy of BBC Sport