The Players in this Russian Tragedy: The Victim, The Hero, The Reluctant Sheriff and the Hopeful

Daraya Pishchalnikova
Darya Pishchalnikova

On June 17, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) barred the entire Russian track and field team from competing in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio this August due to revelations of Russia’s state-sponsored doping of its athletes. As the head of the IAAF, Sebastian Coe, stated during this historic announcement, “Politics was not playing a part in that room today. It was unambiguous.”

The scale of this ban due to doping is unprecedented in Olympic history, and will have a significant impact on the Rio medal tally as Russia won 18 medals in track and field, including 8 gold medals, at the 2012 London Games. This is a tragedy for Russians, who likely were fully expectant of their citizens bringing home medals and glory from Brazil. But it is also a victory for athletes who live clean sporting lives, and a bit of redemption for athletes whose final results may have been affected by a tainted Russian athlete.

But this a complex tale of good and bad, with victims, heroes and dreamers. Here are a few of the players in this tragedy:

The Whistle-Blowing Victim, Darya Pishchalnikova: Way back in December of 2012, a female discus thrower from Astrakhan Russia wrote a very sensitive email in English, and sent it to the World Anti-Doping Agency. Darya Pishchalnikova took a chance by opening up to the global doping regulatory authority, expecting her whistle lowing to be handled with the utmost confidentiality. According to this New York Times article, Pishchalnikova’s email was sent to the top three WADA officials at the time, with a note explaining that the discus thrower’s accusations were “relatively precise”, filled with facts and names. What did WADA do with Pischalnikova’s email? They forwarded it to the Russian sports authorities

What is interesting is that she had actually tested positive for an anabolic steroid prior to the 2012 London Games in May, 2012. She blew the whistle 7 months later, explaining how she had taken banned substances as a part of a systematic doping program in Russia. But perhaps predictably, after the Russian authorities were forwarded Pischalnikova’s email from WADA, the Russian Athletics Federation banned her from competing any further for Russia.

Rusanova of Russia competes during the woman's 800 metres semi-final heat 1 at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu
Yuliya Rusanova of Russia; REUTERS/Michael Dalder

The Reluctant Hero, Yuliya Stepanova: Like Pishchalnikova, Yuliya Stepanova (now Rusanova) was a standout athlete who was banned by the IAAF due to abnormalities with her bloodwork. Her husband, Vitaly Stepanov, was actually a member of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA), who was growing disenchanted with RUSADA’s lack of integrity. At one point, the 800-meter specialist took steps to divorce herself from her crusading husband. But after Yuliya was banned by the IAAF for two years, the couple committed to work together, and began to think about ways to share their insight into systematic doping of Russian athletes. Eventually, they agreed to go on camera with German news broadcaster, ARD, for a documentary that blew the lid off Russia’s state-sponsored doping system. Fearing for their safety, the couple, now married, are living in the United States.

Sochi Winter Olympic Games - Pre-Games activity - Wednesday
Sir Craig Reedie

The Reluctant Sheriff, WADA: We know that the World Anti-Doping Agency was aware of allegations into Russian state-sponsored doping, as early as December, 2012 based on Pischalnikova’s case. We also know according to this 60 Minutes account that Yuliya’s husband, Vitaly sent 200 emails and 50 letters to WADA, detailing what he knew as an insider at RUSADA. As 60 Minutes stated, “his crusade eventually cost him his job.”

WADA’s president is Craig Reedie. In this New York Times article, he acknowledges that Vitaly contacted him, but also implied he did not act on it. In fact, he even confirmed “that he had sent a reassuring email to the Russian sports ministry in April — four months after the ARD documentary was broadcast — in which he praised the sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, for his efforts in the fight against doping and said there was ‘no intention in WADA to do anything to affect’ their relationship.”

Wow.

The Hopeful, Yelena Isinbayeva: Pole vaulting has been an Olympic event for women for only four Olympiads, debuting at the 2000 Sydney Games. In that period, Russian Yelena Isinbayeva has won gold in 2004 and 2008 before taking bronze in 2012. She has never tested positive for drugs. And despite the ban, she still hopes to participate in her fifth and final Olympics in Rio. She also expresses frustration, wondering why all Russian athletes have to be placed under the IAAF ban regardless of their results. “Those of us who have never used banned substances will be punished for the behavior of others,” she wrote in an opinion piece for The New York Times.

There is still hope for Isinbayeva, the outdoor world record holder in women’s pole vault. The IOC announced on Tuesday, June 22 that the IAAF could make exceptions for individuals who are deemed clean. “Today I have to admit that deep down there is hope,” Isinbayeva told reporters after winning the Russian championship in Cheboksary with a 4.90-meter vault. “It hasn’t died completely.”

Yelena Isinbayeva
Yelena Isinbayeva