There they were, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, and Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee. There they were, side-by-side, champagne flute by champagne flute, both wearing blue suits and expressions of importance at a "welcoming party" on the eve of the Sochi Olympics.
The rest of the world was already skeptical of the 2014 Games. Suspicious of the whispers of bribes paid out to win the bid away from Austria. Suspicious of the $51 billion in construction costs to turn a former swampland into something that looked like a still-uncompleted movie set, fake storefronts with nothing behind them. Suspicious of the missing dogs and political rivals, both reportedly scrubbed from the streets.
In Putin, IOC aristocrats such as Bach thought they had found their kindred spirit, willing to pay and do anything for Olympic glory.
Construct lavish and ridiculous facilities that play to the IOC's over-inflated sense of worth? Check. Suck up to IOC leadership like they are all-powerful? Check. Toss a little something extra on the side to assure the voting on host city goes smooth? Cough. Cough.
The New York Times on Thursday reported the latest, and most damning, proof yet that Russia did more than just host the 2014 Winter Olympics: it conspired to fix it. Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of Russia's anti-doping laboratory at the time, detailed to the newspaper how a state-run program was able to use being the host nation to swap out dirty urine samples with clean ones to assure the eligibility of dozens of Russian athletes.
There couldn't be a more apt postscript to the Sochi Games than this: The whole thing was a fake.
The IOC, thinking it had found its latest desperate despot with billions to burn on it while cooing in its ear, was actually being played for fools, as Russia used the home-country advantage to attempt to rig the entire event.
Ah, Thomas Bach, how could you have not seen this coming?
The Times story is surprising only in its breadth and detail.
Of course the Russians were going to cheat. They spent tens of billions, not counting whatever bribe money was or was not doled out, to host the Games. They weren't doing all that to wind up struggling to win medals, finishing sixth like they did in Vancouver four years earlier.
It would have been out of character had they just lost, Putin just saying they'll get them next time. If you're going to let them host the Games, of course they were going to put an over-the-top doping production together.
Everything in Sochi was crooked, not just the poorly laid sidewalks. Just about everyone who was there spent three weeks looking around at the ridiculousness of these Games, at the shoddy construction and bizarre planning and the senseless logistics and had doubts.
Everyone, apparently, but Bach and his friends.
"In a dark-of-night operation," the Times wrote, "Russian antidoping experts and members of the intelligence services surreptitiously replaced urine samples tainted by performance-enhancing drugs with clean urine collected months earlier, somehow breaking into the supposedly tamper-proof bottles that are the standard at international competitions, Dr. Rodchenkov said. For hours each night, they worked in a shadow laboratory lit by a single lamp, passing bottles of urine through a hand-size hole in the wall, to be ready for testing the next day, he said."
The operation is incredible, secretive, sensational and meticulously planned. It took years and millions of dollars to pull off – first doping up the athletes, then, with the help of testers straight out of Rodchenkov's office, keeping them undetected. For instance, "to speed up absorption of the steroids and shorten the detection window, he dissolved the drugs in alcohol – Chivas whiskey for men, Martini vermouth for women."
It reads like a spy novel, only with a more predictable ending.
1. Not a single Russian athlete was caught doping.
2. Russia won the most medals, 33, and most golds, 13, besting the United States and Norway in each respective category. If there were a drug for an improved slap shot, maybe the Russian men's hockey team would have gotten beyond the quarterfinals.
3. Post-Olympics, Putin awarded Dr. Rodchenkov with the Order of Friendship, a prestigious award in that country.
4. In 2015, the World Anti-Doping Agency concluded an investigation that placed the blame for an extensive cheating operation on Rodchenkov.
5. Rodchenkov was forced to resign. He quickly fled to America, claiming he feared for his safety. He probably had good reason. According to the Times, back in Russia, two of his cohorts in the anti-doping system turned up dead.
Good going there, IOC. Well, done. This was a much better idea than just having the Games in Salzburg.
"People are celebrating Olympic champion winners, but we are sitting crazy and replacing their urine," Dr. Rodchenkov told the Times. "Can you imagine how Olympic sport is organized?"
Can you imagine?
Well, it's organized by Thomas Bach and others, folks so desperate for someone to validate their power that they see Vladimir Putin as an ally.
It was Bach, after all, who didn't just clink champagne glasses with Putin, or praise Putin, or overlook the absurdities of Sochi. Bach was even willing to play Putin's political puppet, taking shots at the United States and President Obama, who refused to travel to Russia for the Games, ostensibly because of Russia's anti-gay laws but perhaps mostly out of common sense.
"An ostentatious gesture," Bach said of Obama announcing he wouldn't fly there.
Instead Obama sent a contingent of former athletes, most of them openly gay.
"It's kind of cheap," said Dick Pound, a longtime Olympic administrator and, rather embarrassingly now, the former head of WADA, said at the time. "This is how the United States of America, the world's most important, influential nation handles this issue? In an Olympic context, at a time when you're thinking about bidding for the Olympic Games?"
It's just another reminder why the U.S. is better off staying out of this stuff. Let the IOC play with Putin and the others. Better to just argue for fair play, send our athletes and hope for the best.
Two years ago the IOC leaders were standing up for their new friend Putin, toasting Putin, taking shots at the United States on Putin's behalf. They sure believed in Putin then. And Old Vlad sure has paid them back and then some, laughing all the way.
Hope the champagne tasted good.
Related video from Yahoo Sports: