‘Living on a volcano’: IOC-banned Russian skiers talk about life as ‘pawns in political game’
“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.”
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) ban of six skiers, which Russia has said it will appeal, was enacted on the basis of the report by former World Anti-Doping Agency chief Richard McLaren’s investigation. It alleged that Russia’s anti-doping lab regularly covered up positive tests, and that samples were systematically manipulated at Russia’s home Games three years ago.
“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.
Legkov and the others are currently in the town of Gallivare in Swedish Lapland, where they are competing to qualify for the winter cross-country skiing season that begins this month.
Despite having a long history of competing and winning in Europe alongside top skiers, Legkov, who has been wearing a scarf with the slogan “Clean as snow” out on the track, says that the Russian team is now being shunned by the others.
“Some athletes still come up and say hello and try to keep any chat brief, others just ignore us and shuffle past,” he said.
“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.
The six athletes could be banned from all skiing competitions in the coming days by the international skiing body FIS, which is awaiting evidence from the IOC.
“Since we were told that we were being investigated 11 months ago, it’s been like living on a volcano. You have to motivate yourself for the race, knowing that it might all count for nothing,” said Evgeniya Shapovalova, who did not win a medal at Sochi.
The athletes realize that they have an uphill battle to clear their names amid a much bigger scandal that could see the entire Russian team miss the upcoming Olympics in Pyeongchang in South Korea, starting on February 9.
“We are innocent but powerless,” said Shapovalova.
“We don’t know what to do next with our lives. You have competitions, you have things you aim for, and then suddenly it’s all over. But we still believe that the truth is stronger than lies,” said Aleksey Petukhov, who has been allowed to keep his earlier bronze medal from Vancouver 2010.