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Radio review: Bloodsport, and Free Thinking

24 July 2020


AMONG the challenges for a script­writer working up the story of the Olympic doping scandals into a screenplay, one certainly is not the lack of juicy material. There is every­thing here from murder in Moscow to election-rigging in Sene­gal, from high-level meetings in glamorous hotels to the exchange of brown-paper parcels in lavatories. Rather, the challenge would be where to start, and how to pitch it? Is this comedy or high drama? Or some­­­thing like the intensely black hu­­mour of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin?

As so much of the action revolves around ruthless Russians, the Iannucci comparison seems particu­larly apt. And, certainly, the details revealed in Bloodsport (Radio 4, weekdays) have all his signature mix of absurdity and horror; for, in the world of doping, the most precious resource, the liquid gold around which all stratagems and negotia­tions revolve, is urine. Get your hands on a clean phial of wee, and victory, too, can be in your grasp.

Matt Majendie’s account of the story, delivered over two weeks in 15-minute, podcast-friendly doses, manages just the right balance of panache and gravitas, and is, itself, dangerously addictive.

At the heart of it all is Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of the Russian anti-doping lab, who had fallen out with the authorities and was spend­ing some time in a sanatorium being plied with pscyhotropic drugs until the call came from the 2012 Olympic committee for him to join their anti-doping team. He was released, to start a new reign of havoc, and finally bolted to the United States, where he continues to live in fear for his life.

Rodchenkov’s story has had an airing in a 2017 Netflix documen­t­ary, but the story is by no means over. Trials are still pending, and there is plenty of ground still to cover. Meanwhile, the athletes brought up on these gruesome con­coc­­­tions may be suffering health conditions for the rest of their lives.

Turning to another front in the new Cold War, any attempt by Russia to interfere again in the US presidential election will, this year, come up against a formidable new opposition. A coalition of witches have, since February 2017, been pool­­­­ing their dark arts against the darker arts of President Trump in an unprecedented demonstration of oc­­cult social action. In Free Think­ing (Radio 3, Tuesday of last week), Matthew Sweet explored with his distinguished panel the history of magic from the Stone Age to now.

“The metaphysics of dunces” is how the philosopher Adorno de­­scribed magic, at a time in the early 20th century when the occult was making a comeback in middle-class circles. There has always been a strain of social as well as intellectual snobbery around the dismissal of the occult tradition. The most damning critique of a contemporary occult meeting came from one of Sweet’s guests: “Eyes Wide Shut meets Keep­ing Up Appearances.”

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