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The Plot to Kill the Olympics

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ISL founder Konstantin Ivanovich Grigorishin was born in 1965 in Zaporozhye, an industrial city on the Dnieper River in the rolling, black-earth flatlands of southern Ukraine. Russia has never accepted Ukrainian independence—1,000 years ago, Kyiv was the capital of the original Mother Russia, the Rus empire—and Grigorishin’s parents were children in the early 1930s, when Stalin tried to eradicate even the idea of Ukraine, starving up to 12 million people to death in the Holodomor genocide. Today the city still remembers the “paradise evening” in May 1933 when party bosses in the Intourist Hotel drank champagne and watched women dance naked on the tables as, outside, tens of thousands ate the flesh of horses and even one another.

Stalin decreed that from this cleansing catastrophe a new city would arise, embodying the enlightened modernism of the Soviet Union. Within a few years, Zaporozhye was transformed from provincial backwater into workers’ paradise, a city of square housing blocks, giant industrial plants, and generous public parks, arranged on the longest central avenue in Europe, powered by its biggest hydroelectric dam. Grigorishin’s parents designed jet engines for Antonovs and Yakovlevs. The arrival of a son allowed them to move from a communal apartment into their own two-bedroom, opposite a state sports academy to which Grigorishin was sent at the age of six. Today Grigorishin recalls the school as the origin of his love of Olympic sports. Yet his lawyer, Ekaterina Slivko, says that his attendance indicated his gifts not as an athlete but as a rebel. “The sports school was a bit stricter, for kids whose parents couldn’t handle them,” she says. “You can still see that mischievous boy who upset the entire world.”

Grigorishin’s contrariness sprang from an unyielding intellect. At 12, he was transferred to a school for children who excelled in math and science. By age 19, his ability to “think around corners,” as a friend put it, had taken him to the Nobel Prize–winning Landau Institute of Theoretical Physics in Moscow. When Communism collapsed, Grigorishin watched hundreds of colleagues depart for research positions overseas before deciding to apply the scientific method to the new world of capitalism at home. He would pick a sector, research it, propose a new hypothesis to explain it, then start a company to apply his theories. On enough occasions, his ideas turned industries on their heads and made him outrageously rich. By 2014, his business group, Energy Standard, had holdings in power distribution, manufacturing, ports, and oil and gas logistics worth nearly $6 billion. “Big money is made by playing against the rules,” he said in a 2008 interview. 

With his family—wife Natacha, daughter Jane, and sons Ivan and George—Grigorishin enjoyed his wealth. There was a 200-year-old mansion in central Moscow, a cellar of Bordeaux and Burgundy to match any in the world, an art collection that included a Munch, a Bacon, a Lichtenstein, and a Miró, and three interconnected chalets in Courchevel, in the French Alps. But in other ways, Grigorishin didn’t act the billionaire. He took the train. He dressed in sneakers, gym shorts, and old Pink Floyd T-shirts. For Grigorishin, the joy of money was the freedom it gave him to pursue a life of the mind. Delegating oversight of his empire to managers, he spent months reading postmodern philosophers who argued that after progressing from medievalism to modernity, humanity was on the cusp of a new era of multiple, subjective truths, some beyond rational understanding. Grigorishin described this evolution as “religion, science, magic.”

Once, in a pre-air-travel era, limiting Olympic competition to one climactic tournament every four years made sense. Today that restriction merely illustrates the Olympic establishment’s success at crushing potential rivals.

Inevitably, Grigorishin’s pursuit of metaphysical truth colored his earthly behavior. He tolerated the kind of corruption needed to operate a business in the post-Soviet world—paying bribes to bureaucrats, making alliances with gangster-politicians. But he saw no point in making billions only to remain in hock to some “corruptioner,” and would publicly call out the kind of kleptomania that ate whole countries. “Freedom is very important to me,” he told me. “If somebody tries to restrict my freedom, immediately they are my enemy. I want to do what I want, say that Putin is stupid.” It was an attitude that stood out in the creeping authoritarianism of his environment. When he met Grigorishin in 2003, his general counsel, Maxim Markov, said that he had no intention of leaving a career in international finance to work for some Ukrainian billionaire. “Then, in one meeting, I really fell in love with him,” Markov said. “He never lies. That’s his principle. Even if it is so bad for us as a company.”

It wasn’t great for Grigorishin’s personal safety, either. In 2002, after he fell out with the pro-Moscow government in Kyiv, the Ukrainian police bundled him into a car outside a restaurant, planted a pistol and a bag of cocaine on him, and held him in jail with three convicted murderers for ten days, threatening to drive him out to the woods and bury him alive. Grigorishin’s response upon his release was to move his family to Moscow, detail his treatment in a full-page advertisement in The New York Times, then, from 2004 to 2005, spend $35 million bankrolling the pro-democracy, pro-Europe Orange Revolution, which overthrew the Ukrainian government. Within a few years, however, Grigorishin was complaining that the new leaders were as bad as the old ones. That earned him the disapproval of several Western ambassadors in Kyiv who backed the new regime. An equal-opportunity provocateur, he angered Moscow by opposing its 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

Grigorishin found respite from the turmoil of his professional life in the Olympic ideals of his youth. “Why do I love sport?” he asked. Because in its highest expression it was like fine art. “The beauty of the body, the beauty of motion, the chance that you will see something extraordinary.” His interest narrowed to swimming when his son Ivan showed early promise as a butterflyer. In a few years, Grigorishin progressed from funding training camps to founding a swim club, also called Energy Standard, based in Moscow and Kyiv.

But just as Grigorishin couldn’t help sounding off at oligarchs and politicians, he was soon berating the Olympic coaches and officials they employed. They were pushing the kids too hard, he said. Russia often triumphed at the junior world championships but hadn’t won gold in the Olympic pool since 1996. Why? Because by the time its swimmers were old enough to compete, Grigorishin said, they were burned out. Russia’s Stakhanovite sports culture made doping all but logical, he added, something confirmed when, in the run-up to the 2012 London Games, Rusada turned itself into a pro-doping test-evasion authority, distributing drugs to athletes and swapping out dirty samples for clean ones. Oligarch cash provided more incentive to cheat. Former national head coach Andrei Vorontsov, now at Bath University in southern England, says that in London, the reward for “a gold medal was 4.5 million rubles [then $140,000], plus scholarships, salaries, the keys to a new car—maybe Mercedes, maybe Audi—houses or flats, bonuses from local governments, and an increase in your pension.” To Grigorishin, the pressure to win amounted to state-sponsored child abuse. “Kids are very fragile,” he said. “Their bodies are not ready. Their brains are not ready. So many talents have been destroyed because of that.”

After London, Grigorishin decreed that Energy Standard would be everything Russia’s Olympic sports world was not. No doping, no medal targets, no gifts of cars or luxury watches. Grigorishin’s instinct was that relaxed swimmers were better swimmers, their minds not objects to be suppressed but assets to be harnessed. Gratifyingly, results came quickly. By 2016, Energy Standard had several Olympic prospects, and its enlightened methods were attracting world champions like Sara Sjöström of Sweden and Chad le Clos of South Africa. Within a few years, almost by accident, Grigorishin found himself owner of the best, most progressive swim club in the world.