Maxim Vylegzhanin, Alexander Legkov, Ilya Chernousov, XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi
Maxim Vylegzhanin, Alexander Legkov, Ilya Chernousov, XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi © Alexander Vilf / Sputnik

It was a proud moment for a proud nation.

Three Russians stood on the medal podium in the 50k freestyle cross-country skiing competition, on the last day of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. In a spectacular finish to a grueling race, Russia’s Alexander Legkov and a few others broke the pack of about 30 skiiers for a final push.

And the push was up a steep incline before entering the stadium. Legkov pushed past the finish line after a tough 1 hour 46 minutes and 55.2 seconds, only 0.7 seconds ahead of compatriot, Maxim Vylegzhanin, and 0.8 seconds ahead of another Russian, Ilia Chernousov.

As Russian teammate, Sergey Gamuzov, gushingly exclaimed in this article, “Russia power, Alexander Legkov, the power of Russia! It was wonderful day!”

That was then. This is now.

In late December, 2016, Legkov and Vylegzhanin were suspended by the International Ski Federation after their names came up in the now-famous McLaren report on state-sponsored doping in Russia, particularly during the lead up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia. The IOC made it official by giving Legkov and another Russian skier, Evgeniy Belov, on November 1, and four more Russian cross-country skiers on November 9, including Vylegzhanin, lifetime bans in Olympic competition. They will also have to forfeit the medals they won.

There is very little written about it, but for some reason, third-place winner, Ilia Chernousov, has not been implicated in the doping scandal, so for now, he retains his bronze medal. And while no decision has been made in distribution of medals, it’s very possible that the 4th and 5th place winners in the Sochi 50k cross country ski competition – Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway and Sergei Dolidovich of Belarus – could receive medals, with Chernousov becoming the gold-medalist.

Sochi 50k cross country ski medal standings

Predictably, the Russian skiers are not happy, as written in the Russian English news site, RT.

“Foreign officials are trying to put pressure on our country,” said Alexander Legkov, who was stripped of his 50km gold and 4x10km relay silver earlier this month by the International Olympic Committee. “The athletes are pawns in this game, and easiest to punish.”

“I haven’t got the faintest idea of any state-sponsored doping system,” said Legkov, who insists that he competed fairly, and always worried about his clear samples being contaminated.

“It’s hard when people don’t believe you. You open up to people and tell them the truth, but they are closed to you,” added Maksim Vylegzhanin, who had three Sochi silvers taken away from him.

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On December 5, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned the Russian National Olympic Committee from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, taking a significantly bolder stance than they did at the 2016 Rio Olympics when they only delegated that decision to the international sports federations.

As the actual team was not banned, individual Russian athletes will still likely be able to apply for participation on their own if it can be shown they were not involved in the state-doping program for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. If they are allowed to join the PyoengChang Olympics, they will participate under the banner of OAR (Olympic Athlete from Russia), and if they win a gold medal, they will hear the Olympic Anthem, not the Russian anthem.

Several days later, the head of the International Fencing Federation (FIE) and billionaire Russian national, Alisher Usmanov, wrote a letter to the IOC with an appeal. While Usmanov makes no defense of those athletes who have used doping as a systematic part of their training and development, he claims that those Russian athletes who are “clean” should not be treated unfairly.

Even though discrimination in any shape or form contradicts the principles of the Olympic Movement, the IOC’s decision certainly does put clean Russian athletes on an uneven playing field with athletes from other countries. Having gone through the purgatory of the Olympic qualifications, clean Russian athletes will (a) have to wait for months for the final decisions by the special commission of the IOC, (b) be deprived of the customary support of the NOC of Russia, and (c) most importantly, be denied the right to see their national flag and hear their national anthem.

What is interesting, and perhaps ironic, is the appeal to fairness:

One of the principles of Roman law states: “Nullum crimen, nulla poena sine culpa”. (“No guilt – no punishment”.) The innocent shall not be punished and put down to knees. This approach violates the basic human rights and undermines the trust in law and justice. Athletes dedicate their rather short life in sport for this one moment when they can see their country’s flag in the sky and hear the sound of their national anthem. This is the pinnacle of their glory, their personal conquest of Everest.

This very principle of fairness is what got the Russian sports machine in trouble. The well-documented state-sponsored doping regime in Russia may have very well resulted in the cheater assuming the medal podium. When a doper wins a medal, clean athletes are deprived of the glory of claiming gold, and the potential of financial gains among other things. Clean athletes who finish fourth, fifth or sixth are deprived of receiving any medal and thus public recognition.

I understand Usmanov’s appeal. And he is actually right. However, a little more empathy about how other athletes feel about the Russia doping scandal could have helped.