Whistleblower Vitaly Stepanov said yesterday he nearly aborted his plan to expose widespread doping in Russian athletics when the World Anti-Doping Agency was slow to act on information he provided them.
Stepanov, who previously worked for Russia’s anti-doping agency, said he second-guessed himself countless times during a three-year stretch where information he fed to WADA did not lead to action.
“I was falling asleep and telling myself I am an idiot,” Stepanov told Reuters in a telephone interview. “That was probably my thought a lot of times. Especially after each major competition that was my thought. What am I doing?”
Stepanov, who had over 200 email exchanges with WADA starting in 2010, provided evidence for a German television documentary called “Top Secret Doping: How Russia Makes Its Winners” that led to the establishment of a WADA independent commission last year.
“I was frustrated with myself,” said Stepanov, who is now living in an undisclosed location in the United States with his wife.
“That was half of the time. The other half of the time there was hope WADA was looking for ways to deal with this issue and you have to be really patient. I thought the best I could do was provide the information and hope it was used for the right reason.”
WADA spokesman Ben Nichols told Reuters the agency acted as soon as it could. Before 2015, WADA did not have the authority to conduct its own investigations under the World Anti-Doping Code, according to Nichols.
But Travis Tygart, chief executive of the US Anti-Doping Agency, when asked about the WADA inaction, said: “From a clean athlete prospective, it is really hard to stomach that they didn’t. It rattles confidence in the system.”
Tygart noted the WADA Foundation board would meet in Montreal today. “One way or another future generations are going to look back at this as a defining moment in the fight for clean sport.” he added.
Based on the WADA commission report, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) suspended Russian athletics from international competition, including the August 5-21 Rio Olympics.
The IAAF Council will decide on June 17 whether to reinstate Russia and allow its athletics team to compete in Rio.
The Council also is expected to take up the request by Stepanov’s wife Yuliya, who served a two-year doping ban, to compete in Rio.
Asked what WADA should do to clean up sport, Stepanov said: “WADA needs more people that believe in clean sport and fair competitions and less politicians. I think the system works if there are no corrupt people in it. Then it is a good system.”
Russia’s Ministry of Sport said on Monday since the revelations by the Stepanovs originally appeared in 2015, a full probe has been carried out into activities by the Russian state and a “road map” had been agreed to with WADA to reform the anti-doping process.
“These efforts thus ensure the independence and transparency of doping control in Russia, which is fully supported by the state,” the ministry said in a statement.
Although some Russians have called Stepanov and his wife traitors, Vitaly denied the couple wanted to destroy Russian sport.
“I wasn’t trying to expose Russia, I was trying to expose corrupt sports officials that are completely messing up competitions not just inside the country but globally,” he said. “This kind of people should be in jail.”
Stepanova still hopes to compete in Rio Games
Even through all the turmoil that forced Yuliya Stepanova to flee her native Russia with her husband, the whistleblower has not given up hope of competing at the Rio Olympics in August.
Evidence provided by Stepanova and her husband Vitaly, a former Russian anti-doping agency employee, formed part of an investigation that led to Russian athletics being suspended from international competition.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Council will decide on June 17 whether to reinstate Russian athletics, paving the way for the sports super power to compete in Rio. The governing body’s council will also act on a request by Stepanova, who served a two-year doping ban, to run in Rio under the International Olympic Committee flag and to return to international competition.
Obviously, the 800 metres runner would not be welcome to run for Russia. “It would be a dream come true to be an Olympian, something I had always hoped to do,” Stepanova, with her husband translating, said. “If the best place I can get is the last place, I would still be happy.”
Twice daily the 29-year-old trains in the hope that word from the IAAF and IOC will be positive. Stepanova asked that her location in the United States not be disclosed out of fear for her family’s safety after her doping disclosures.
She reached the Olympic qualifying standard last year when Russian athletes were still eligible to compete and the reactions of her competitors was mixed. “Some people said thank you to her,” her husband said. “Some people put their eyes down and walked away, and some people didn’t know who she is.”
Stepanova admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs while competing for Russia, something her husband said she regretted. “She realised she was cheating and she regrets doing it, but she cannot change the past,” he said.
Opinions differ on whether she should be in Rio. Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the US Anti-Doping Agency, said she should be given that opportunity.
“Given her circumstances, it would be unfair not to give her an avenue to compete,” he said. “People are not asking for her to be able to run because she stood up and came forward. She has the qualifying standard and has been tested regularly.”
WADA also said it would not object to her competing again.
However, Kevan Gosper, a leading Olympic official and a member of the IAAF ethics board, said he was not optimistic about Stepanova competing under the IOC flag.
“The IOC has had a lot of experience of enabling athletes to take part in sport if there’s been a breakdown in the administration of sport or changes by virtue of political issues, war and so on,” he said at a sports integrity forum in Melbourne.
“We’ve had no experience of just making way for an individual in that respect. I think everything should be looked at but I wouldn’t be overly optimistic,” he added.
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