Some called it Russia’s “alternative Olympics,” but the Stars 2016 event in Moscow for the track and field athletes banned from Rio felt more like a school track meet, albeit with much faster times.
The 150 competitors included many of the 67 Russian athletes banned from competing at the Games after findings of state-sponsored doping, including the hurdler Sergei Shubenkov and high jumpers Ivan Ukhov and Maria Kuchina. A few hundred people, mostly friends and relatives, came to cheer them on at the Znamensky Brothers stadium, a small venue that normally hosts the Moscow track and field championships.
Several athletes denied the meet was meant as a protest against their suspension from Rio. But a spirit of defiance was evident as they came off the track breathless after their events.
“It should show that no matter how much pressure they put on us we are ready to fight and run further,” said Pavel Ivashko, who won the 400m at the meet. “They didn’t break us. They disqualified us in the rudest way but we continue to compete.”
The Russian athletics federation head, Dmitry Shlyakhtin, and the pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, who had hoped to try for a third Olympic gold in Rio, addressed the crowd before the Russian national anthem was played to open the meet.
“No competition in the world can replace the Olympics, but nonetheless today we are finding a replacement for what they didn’t give us yesterday,” Shlyakhtin said before the sound system briefly broke down. “Today is a challenge to those who didn’t let us in to what we earned. Today we can show what we were striving for these past four years.”
Dressed all in black despite the hot weather Isinbayeva called on the athletes to hold their heads high and declared that “victory will be ours”.
“We ran into such injustice when they took away the Olympic Games from us, but, as I said yesterday, it will only make us stronger,” Isinbayeva said, referring to the grand sendoff the Russia Olympic team – including many of its banned athletes – received at the Kremlin on Wednesday.
In response to the revelations of widespread doping that led to the complete suspension of Russian track and field, as well as Olympic bans for any Russian athletes who had previous violations or were mentioned in the latest World Anti-Doping Agency investigation, the number bibs worn by the Stars 2016 competitors read “I run clean,” “I throw clean,” and so forth, depending on their discipline.
The sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, who arrived for the prize ceremony, said the event was a chance for the athletes “to show what they can do” and carried no political message. But he admitted it would show grit in the face of adversity. “Russians have a special spirit, hardships only unify us,” he said.
“They didn’t let us into the main competition, the Olympics, so we came here to show what we can do,” said the shot put winner, Konstantin Lyadusov. “We had no other options, plus it’s good prize money.”
Shlyakhtin stressed Stars 2016 was a “commercial meet” and a chance for athletes to “win something”. Winners were awarded 100,000 roubles (£1,140), second place was worth 50,000 roubles and third place earned 30,000 roubles.
According to the coach Alexander Tsyplakov, many athletes are hurting financially from the suspension from international competition.
Mutko remained on the field after the prize ceremony and spent nearly an hour taking questions from athletes, many of whom appeared to be troubled about the future of their sport. From what reporters could hear before bodyguards hustled them away, athletes were asking about how track and field could continue to develop while banned from international competition, what new coaches and officials would be appointed and how to fund individual legal appeals against the ban.
The head coach Yuriy Borzakovskyi, a former Olympic gold medalist who was appointed last year, said Russian track and field would continue to hold national and regional events on the same schedule.
“We would like to get concrete requirements [from athletics’ governing body] to restore Russia’s membership, so that no one can hit reverse later and say we didn’t fulfill the requirements,” he said.
Several spectators in the crowd said they believed the doping allegations were politicised and the competition was an important sign of defiance. A state poll on Thursday found 90% of Russians support President Vladimir Putin’s handling of the doping scandal. The president on Wednesday called the charges unproven and said the suspension from Rio was “open discrimination”.
Irina Maksimova, a librarian, said she believed the doping allegations were part of a plot to take away the 2018 World Cup from Russia.
“It’s a huge injustice for athletes,” she said of the Olympic ban. “For Russia and for the world it’s important to show that this has not buried us, that life continues, that we continue to compete and that Moscow supports its athletes.”
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