Russian Olympic ban is bittersweet for whistleblower who provided doping evidence – USA TODAY
USA TODAY Sports’ Rachel Axon discusses the International Association of Athletics Federation’s decision to ban Russia’s track and field athletes from the upcoming Rio Olympics.
USA TODAY Sports
For Vitaly Stepanov, the decision from the International Association of Athletics Federations to extend a ban of Russia that will keep his home country out of the Rio Olympics was bittersweet.
In the same decision that closed the door to Russian track and field athletes competing under their flag at the Games, the IAAF also created a path for Yulia Stepanova, Vitalyâs wife and a Russian runner, to return to international competition.
But without an assurance that her eligibility has been restored, Vitaly Stepanov remained cautious. He and his wife had not gone down the path to being whistleblowers to value Yuliaâs athletic career above all else.
Their goal was to fight doping in sport, and the IAAFâs decision on Friday represented a significant step in doing that.
âThe decision, if thatâs what it takes to make real changes in Russian athletics and in Russian sports in general, to keep the ban longer so Russian sports officials understand that they actually have to make real changes and not the fake ones, then it was the right decision,â said Stepanov, a former employee at the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA). âItâs really unfortunate that itâs happened to our own home country but in general to the athletics world, but if thatâs what it takes to makes sports cleaner then it must be done and it was a good and strong decision.â
The IAAF council accepted recommendations from its taskforce charged with evaluating Russiaâs progress to meet certain criteria for reinstatement, which included extending a ban that has been in place since November. Russia had not made enough reforms, as the taskforce asserted that a âdeep-seated culture of toleranceâ to doping remains in Russia.
It also recommended, and the IAAF unanimously accepted, a rule change to allow Russian athletes who can show they have been subject to effective anti-doping programs and not tainted by the Russian system to apply for permission from the IAAF to compete in international competitions as neutral athletes.
That rule change allows athletes who have made an âexceptional contributionâ in the fight against doping to apply for that permission, and the taskforce recommended the IAAF consider such an application from Stepanova favorably.
âShe took great personal risk in order to break open a doping culture that no one else on the inside was willing to expose,â the taskforce wrote. âWithout her contribution, the unique opportunity that now exists to fix the system would very likely not exist.
âYuliya Stepanova has therefore struck a great blow for clean athletes everywhere.â
Despite that, she remains banned along with the rest of Russiaâs athletes and must have an application for an exemption approved before she could compete again. Until the Stepanovs receive a letter from the IAAF saying she is able to compete, Vitaly remains guarded.
âIâm glad they discussed Yuliyaâs case and I think in general itâs a good sign for whistleblowers that international federations will support you even if your national federation does not support you, but it has not been solved yet,â he said. âIn general, it was positive news but the issue has not been solved yet and Iâm always cautious before actually something happens.â
The Stepanovs became the most important whistleblowers in the history of anti-doping after providing secretly recorded audio and video messages, emails and text messages to a World Anti-Doping Agency independent commission. They did so at their own personal risk, leaving Russia first for Germany and now for the United States before aÂ German broadcaster airedÂ their allegations of dopingÂ in a documentary inÂ December 2014.
In November, the independentÂ commission concluded Russian athletics was rife with widespread and state-sanctioned doping. The IAAF provisionally banned Russia from international competition as a result.
In January 2015, Stepanova finished a two-year ban for a doping offense related to abnormalities in her athlete biological passport, which a panel determined to be consistent with use of a prohibited substance or blood manipulation.
By then, as part of coming forward as a whistleblower, Stepanova had admitted to her doping offenses.
While the WADA code offers a reduction of sanctions if athletes provide âsubstantial assistanceâ to anti-doping officials, Stepanova did not ask for such a reduction, her husband said.
The IAAF cleared her to compete in early 2015, but she found herself suspended again when the federation banned Russian athletes from international competition. While Russian athletes have been allowed to compete in domestic meets, the Stepanovs said they do not feel safe returning there.
The recommendations of the IAAF taskforce highlighted the treatment of the Stepanovs in their home country.
One of theÂ criteria for reinstatement for the Russian federation is to promote an open environment to encourage whistleblowers. But the federation, Russian Olympic Committee and Ministry of Sport âhave adopted at best a highly ambivalent attitudeâ toward Stepanova, the taskforce report concluded. A spokesman for President Vladimir Putin last week referred to her as âJudas.â
âI think, frankly, recognizing her courage and her contribution to all of this has taken them much longer than it should,â said former WADA president Dick Pound, who led the independent commission. âMy guess is that that is a recommendation that came out of their taskforce, rather than the goodness of the councilâs heart. That was good. Without that information, we would have been nowhere.â
Chance to compete
Russiaâs failure to support whistleblowers was only one of many ways the taskforce found it had fallen short of meeting criteria neededÂ for reinstatement.
Coaches and athletes remain unwilling to acknowledge the extent of the countryâs doping problem, the task force concluded, and Russia has no effective anti-doping infrastructure in place to deter or detect doping.
Stepanov had hoped to see Russian officials acknowledge the problem and do more than give lip service to changing.
âIn my view, whatâs happening in Russia sports right now is like a circus. The same people that were running doping programs, in the ministry especially, now are saying that they are making changes. They are apologizing for athletes but they are not taking any personal responsibility for the wrongdoings. They are appealing to IAAF and IOC,â he said. âIn this regard, I was somewhat glad to see that IAAF and the taskforce actually didnât buy what Russian officials were saying and IAAF decided not to be a part of that circus.â
As for Stepanovaâs hopes of competing in Rio, those remain on hold until the IAAF could declare her eligible. She has met the Olympic qualifying time in the 800 meters and has been drug tested by IAAF.
But Stepanov said they have not even considered if or how she could get there â especially without the financial resources of a national federation â because they donât have a letter restoring her eligibility in hand.
Heâll take one step at a time, and for now is glad to see decisive action that might prompt change in his country.
In writing to the International Olympic Committee and the IAAF earlier this week, Stepanov said while the decisions ahead would be difficult, he hoped they would be ethical and protect the majority of clean athletes.
He hopes the IOC can do the same when it meets on Tuesday for a summit to address âthe difficult decision between collective responsibility and individual justice.â
The IAAF sought to do that on Friday, providing some reassurance to the Stepanovs.
Said Vitaly Stepanov, âThe fact that they did address the issue and the fact that they did openly support Yuliya, recognizing that she does helpÂ the global community of clean athletes, when you read something like that you understand that people believed you and they understood you.â