Icarus just won a well deserved Oscar for best documentary of 2017. In it, a weekend warrior bicyclist begins making a documentary about his efforts to enhance his race performance using Tour de France-style performance enhancing drug protocols. He seeks out Grigory Rodchenkov, who helped develop and distribute banned performance enhancing substances for thousands of Russian Olympians from 2005 to 2015. Grigory agrees to coach the film maker through his doping protocol. But during the making of the film, the story broke about Russia’s decades-long doping program, which turned the movie into a real life James Bond saga. Grigory takes a midnight flight from Russia to the U.S., and hides in the film maker’s apartment. He remains in hiding in an undisclosed location, in great fear of his life, and under the protection of the U.S. government. His information, in part, led to the banning of the Russian team from this year’s winter Olympics.
Grigory, to put it mildly, has made some enemies. Vladimir Putin has called him “a jerk” who “can hardly be trusted in any way”. And Putin’s spokesman describes him as “…an odious individual who has problems with the law.”
More recently Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian oligarch who owns the Brooklyn Nets, has put his vast financial resources behind a lawsuit brought against Grigory by three Russian biatheletes. Each seeks ten million dollars from Grigory, claiming his alleged false accusations about their drug use led to their being stripped of silver medals won in the Sochi Olympics.
Prokhorov definitely has an axe to grind against Grigory, who previously accused him of paying one of the biathletes millions of rubles not to disclose the Russian doping scheme.
The complaint, filed in Manhattan, claims Grigory destroyed the athletes’ careers and damaged their reputations. It is interesting that the case was filed in the U.S. rather than the U.K, where most high stakes international defamation suits are filed. In the U.S. the person filing suit must prove that he was defamed. But in the U.K., the burden is on the person being sued to prove that his statements about the plaintiff were true. This means that, in the U.K., the plaintiff usually wins.
Texas has even stronger defenses against defamation claims. Here, Grigory could immediately file a Motion to Dismiss under the Texas Anti-SLAPP statute. The trial judge would then quickly hold a hearing to see whether the athletes have a reasonable basis for their suit, and evidence to support it. If not, the court could then dismiss the case and order the athletes to pay sanctions and attorneys’ fees. If New York has a similar statute, the athletes’ case could be dead on arrival.
Most commentators (including me) believe the case has a limited chance of success, due to the choice of venue and the probability of the truth of the statements. This excellent article from NBC reports that the U.S. government may intervene to keep Grigory from having to testify. The New York Times story on the suit can be read here.