Two hundred metres before the end of Yuliya Stepanova’s 800m heat she heard a tendon in her foot snap. But after all the travails she has suffered since blowing the whistle on doping in Russian athletics she was not about to surrender to a mere injury.
Slowly, painfully, she trotted to the line, finishing in a time of four minutes and two seconds, more than two minutes outside her personal best, before, to add insult to injury, she was later disqualified for putting her foot on the inside of the track.
For these championships, as in her life since fleeing Russia – first to Germany then to a secret location in the United States – Stepanova is stateless. She was competing here as an independent neutral athlete, her vest showing the symbol of European Athletics. If, by some miracle, she had won gold then Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the anthem of the European Union, would have rung out across Amsterdam. As it was, she was happy just to return to international competition and insisted, despite all evidence to the contrary, that she could compete in the Olympics in a month’s time.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be in Rio yet because nobody has given me permission,” she said. “I have an injury three weeks before and I have to see how it heals. Only after that will I be able to make any plans.”
Stepanova is the only Russian at these championships. Russia’s track and field stars have been banned from international competition since last November and most are also set to miss the Olympics after the IAAF, the governing body of athletics, ruled that their athletes would also be excluded from competing in Rio unless they could “clearly and convincingly” show they were not tainted by the Russian system. An appeal will go through the court of arbitration for sport later this month.
As she trudged round the final bend she heard the clapping from the stands and saw some rise to their feet in gratitude for what she had done.
“When I was sitting in the changing room all the girls I was in competition with came up to me and said thank you for being brave, so I felt supported,” she said, flashing a pained smile. Accompanying her was the British athlete Jenny Meadows, whom Stepanova deprived of a place in the 2011 world championship final in Daegu. With her too there was forgiveness.
“I told her: ‘I’m glad you did what you did,’” said Meadows. “It was really brave of her. She was quite emotional when I was saying I was thankful for her. She’s just glad she’s been welcomed in a positive way. She probably stood on the start line not knowing if she’d get booed or hissed. It’s a shame she didn’t get a result here but it’s the first time she’s competed in two years – at a European Championships.”
In 2013 abnormalities in Stepanova’s Athlete Biological Passport, dating back to March 2011, led to a two-year ban and the annulment of her results from 2011 onwards. But Meadows believes she did not have much choice growing up in the Russian system.
“At the end of the day I know she took performance enhancing products but she always said she didn’t have a choice,” she said. “She really thought everyone in the world was doing it. That’s what she was told. She thought I was doing exactly the same. She was quite shocked when she realised that’s not what athletics is about. It was just the Russian system.”
The reaction in her homeland would have been markedly cooler. Because without the secret recordings of Stepanova and her husband Vitaliy, who worked as a Russian anti-doping official, Dick Pound may never have written a sentence of his eviscerating report into Russian track and field.
But Stepanova believes the Russian media has presented things in an unfair light. “The thing that the Russian media did not believe is the fact that we are telling the truth,” she said. “They thought that we wanted revenge and Russia still does not believe in me and the doping stories I have been revealing are not true.”
Only once did she refuse to answer a question, when she was asked whether she feared for her life after being called a “Judas” by a spokesman for Vladimir Putin.
Meadows, though, does not think the world has seen the last of her. “If she’s got through that, she can get through anything,” she said. It was hard not to disagree.
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