Is Yulia Stepanova, the Russian 800m runner whose whistleblowing activity triggered the scandal which has resulted in Russia’s track-and-field athletes being suspended from international competition including the forthcoming Rio Olympics, a “Judas” or a “true Olympic hero”?
The former description is one that has been widely used in her homeland, and the latter is a phrase used by the Travis Tygart, head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, for both Stepanova and her husband Vitaly Stepanov. Does the truth lie in either description, or somewhere in between?
It was in February 2013 that Stepanova, who previously competed under her maiden name of Rusanova, learned she would receive a two-year doping ban after her blood tests had indicated use of a banned performance-enhancing substance.
When she returned to Moscow from her training camp and was met by her husband Vitaly Stepanov, she told John Brant for the New York Times magazine, there were two items on her agenda.
The first was an appointment with a senior sports official to discuss her situation. The second was a planned visit to a Government office to finalise divorce papers which had already been filed there.
As the couple spoke about her position, sitting in their car, the idea emerged that she might secretly record her interview with the official on her smartphone with the hope of gaining evidence that could be passed on to the anti-doping authorities about the nature and scope of doping abuses within the Russian coaching system.
By that time the pair had been married for more than three years, having met at the 2009 National Championships in Cheboksary, where Stepanov was working in an information booth for his new employers, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency.
From the start, as Brant’s interview makes clear, it was a difficult and tumultuous marriage, with the question of doping somewhere near the centre of it. Stepanova made no secret of the fact that she had been taking cocktails of prohibited substances since 2007 as she worked towards her goal of winning medals at the highest level. Stepanov, who had challenged his employers over some of the stories she had told him, found himself without his RUSADA job in 2011 after what he was told was a “re-structuring” exercise.
Troubled by the information he had received, Stepanov had started to pass details on to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) from 2010 onwards, even though he realised such information could jeopardise his wife’s career.
So as they sat in the car, a decision was made. They did not finalise their divorce. They did drive to the meeting with the official to begin the process of collecting secretly recorded video and audio recordings of Russian sports officials, coaches and athletes discussing the use of banned performance-enhancing drugs.
These were aired in 2014 in a German TV documentary and triggered a scandal which has resulted in Russia’s track-and-field athletes being suspended from international competition pending a transformation of their anti-doping procedures, a state of affairs that was confirmed on June 17 by an International Association of Athletics Federations Task Force headed by Norway’s Rune Andersen.
A forthcoming report from WADA into alleged doping abuses by the host nation at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games could yet see other Russian sports effectively barred from the Rio 2016 Games.
For Stepanov and Stepanova the road they decided to take has led to effective exile in the United States, where they live in a secret location because of their concerns over the widespread strength of feeling against them back in their home country.
Among those in Russia to employ the term “Judas” to Stepanova was a spokesman for the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. And there has been widespread castigation of her actions in Russia’s social media.
Hajo Seppelt, the German producer of the TV documentaries, has said: “Together, Yuliya and Vitaly have been Public Enemy No. 1 in Russia.”
In Kursk, where Stepanova was raised, her mother has reportedly been harassed at the hospital where she is a nurse and asked how she could have raised “such a Judas.”
But as Stepanova’s subsequent written statement to WADA indicated, her actions have also been driven by anger at what she felt was a situation in which she had been exploited.
“When I just found out about being sanctioned, the world that I imagined to myself collapsed in front of my eyes,” she wrote in her statement to WADA. “It was very bitter to understand that I’m being sanctioned and the people that set up such doping in Russia will not be punished at all and will continue to prepare athletes the same way.”
Stepanova has spoken of her difficult childhood in Kursk, where she said she had lived in fear of her father, who would beat the family when he was drunk, adding: “I was always afraid. I just wanted to grow up fast and get away.”
Inspired by watching the 2000 Sydney Olympics on television, she took up athletics and soon became a very promising 800m runner.
“I trained for one year, and I start to hear things from other girls,” Stepanova told Brant. “At the dining hall in the training camps, the girls were talking about the pills and the shots. This is what everyone does, the girls were saying. You can’t be on the national team without using these things. If you don’t take them, you have no future in sport.”
In her written statement to WADA, she said that once she was receiving effective testosterone injections, her personal record for 800 meters dropped to 2:08:47 from 2:13. “Summer 2007 was the first time when my coach gave me Oral Turinabolan pills and EPO injections,” she wrote.
As her husband struggled with the contradictory impulses of wanting to pass on details of doping abuses and living with an athlete who openly doped, Stepanova began to make her mark on the international scene.
She finished third in the 2011 European Indoor Championships and was promoted to silver when fellow Russian Yevgeniya Zinurova was disqualified from gold following a doping positive. She also reached the finals in the 2011 IAAF World Championships in Daegu and the following year’s IAAF World Indoor Championships.
The judgements on Stepanova and the path she has taken are hugely polarised.
The Russian position is clear. Artem Patsev, a Russian sports lawyer, commented: "IAAF has developed a new five to 10 per cent per cent tolerance approach to doping. Why? After this decision was taken I'm absolutely sure that IAAF activities has nothing in common with zero tolerance to doping.
"It turns out that a girl who had been taking doping for six years before she was disqualified and confessed only after that, who is trying not to return the prize money, can take part in competitions. At the same time, normal athletes, who have never cheated, have to send somewhere their detailed biographies and to prove that they are who they are (that they are not camels - a Russian idiom)
"The point is it's not clear to whom they have to prove that, to those people from the IAAF, the activities of which have got nothing in common with zero tolerance to doping. If they really sticked to the zero tolerance to doping principle, they would ban her from the competitions except for the amateur championship of the village where she is training with pints of beer as prizes."
Tatyana Lebedeva, who won the 2004 Olympic long jump title and two world title at triple jump, said: "We have got our country. Why do our athletes have always to be abroad? It seems that the IAAF decision was taken in favour of one person."
Dmitriy Shlyakhtin, President of the Russian Athletics Federation, added: "IAAF had taken this decision beforehand, that is why they published the official statement. This question was decided during the meeting in Vienna. The RusAF is absolutely neutral to this decision."
But the opposing view is equally clearly set, as articulated by observers such as Frank Shorter, the 1972 Olympic marathon champion who was the first chairman of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, who has acknowledged the couple’s “giant contribution”, and said “they have given hope to honest athletes all around the world.”
Tygart has described Stepanova and her husband as “true Olympic heroes.”
The IAAF Task Force recommended that Stepanova, who completed her two-year suspension in 2015 and has been training hard in the US, should be able compete internationally under a neutral flag, urging that her case “should be considered favourably” by the IOC.
That judgement has been confirmed by the IAAF’s Doping Review Board, which has cleared her to compete in the European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam this week (July 6-10).
Stepanova’s ambition to run in Rio remains uncertain, however, as the IOC, while saying it “fully supported” the IAAF recommendations on maintaining the suspension of Russian track and field athletes while offering the opportunity for certain individuals to run under the Olympic flag, has also pointed out that such representation cannot happen without a rule change.
Earlier this week, Andersen told insidethegames that it was “obvious” that Stepanova would be allowed to run in Amsterdam.
“The Councils of the IAAF and European Athletics are both in favour of letting her compete in Amsterdam so I think it should be obvious that she should be able to do so.
“Our report recommended that her application should be dealt with favourably by the IAAF Doping Review Board.
“It was a unanimous decision to recommend that she should be able to compete in international competitions such as the European Athletics Championships and the Olympic Games.
“Whether she will be, what likelihood there is of her returning to compete at Rio 2016 is not for me to say – that is a matter between the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee.
“But the IAAF is quite clear - the Council accepted our Task Force recommendation, and we clearly feel that, for all the reasons we have stated in the paper, she should be able to compete.”
Seppelt also believed the former European Indoor 800m medallist, who completed a two-year doping suspension in February 2015, will run in Amsterdam.
“I think there is a pretty good chance she will compete in the European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam,” he told insidethegames.
“The people in European Athletics seem very supportive of her.”
On the subject of the rule change which would be necessary for Stepanova to run in Rio, Andersen added:
“I think the important point here is that the IAAF Council made a rule change in the respect that they supported the Task Force recommendations on Friday, June 17.
“By doing that they made their rule change and opened up the possibility of whistleblowers competing in a neutral capacity.
“Whether this is possible for the IOC or not is not for me to comment upon. It’s something the IAAF and the IOC have to deal with.”
But regardless of whether Stepanova toes the line in either Amsterdam or Rio, Andersen believes she has already earned herself a figurative medal:
“What she has done is the reason why the whole thing about Russia started in the first place,” he said.
“We want the anti-doping fight to move forward, and we need whistleblowers to come forward with vital information about what is going on in various sporting environments. Whether it concerns other athletes or coaches, the sports community need that information.
“I first met Vitaly back in 2010 because I used to work for the World Anti-Doping Agency at that stage and when he first came to speak about his concerns to WADA in Vancouver I was there.
“With other members of the Task Force, I had a meeting with Vitaly in New York in January. We agreed that Yuliya would stay where she was because she did not have good English at that time. At that stage we started to talk to Vitaly about many, many issues that related to him, Yuliya, and doping in Russia. We also got a feeling about all the things they had been through in recent years.
“He is a very trustworthy person. He and his wife have had a very hard time because of doing what they believe in.”
While Seppelt believed Stepanova could run in Amsterdam, he said competing at the Olympics would be “more complicated.”
“Just imagine - a big part of the Russian team is excluded, and there are only a handful of Russians competing,” he said.
“That would be a big embarrassment for Russia, especially if at the same time there was someone competing that many in Russia still call a traitor.
“What was said by the Stepanovas was not said against Russia. It was just for the truth, for the sake of sport.
“When the WADA report into the question of whether Russia has engaged in state-run doping across different sports is published the situation could get even more difficult - not only in athletics, but across all events.
“But I can imagine the IOC would sacrifice her because they don’t want to damage their relationship with Russia. That’s my take on it, although I don’t know that for a fact. I can’t imagine the IOC President, Thomas Bach, could allow that to happen.”
President Bach chose not to address questions on this topic on Friday after receiving the Paris 2024 delegation at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne.
As is the case with any athlete who is found to have cheated, Stepanova’s performances have hurt other athletes who have been deprived of the medals and occasions that should have been theirs.
Britain’s Jenny Meadows has suffered more than most. Her title as the 2011 European Indoor 800m champion only came to her after the original winner, Zinurova, had her result annulled following a positive doping test.
At the IAAF World Championships of the same year, in Daegu, Meadows missed out on qualifying for the final by just one place. Stepanova moved through and went on the finish eighth, although that result, along with those from the European Indoor Championships and World Indoor Championships, has been annulled.
It is instructive to hear Meadows’ views on Stepanova’s continuing ambitions within the sport. “At first I had mixed feeling about Yulia being allowed to participate at all once she had returned from her ban,” she told insidethegames.
“Of course I still suffered the negative emotions that she put me through when she prevented me from participating in the World Championship final in Daegu. I then met up with her at an IAAF meeting in Hengelo and was struck by how nervous she appeared, partly because it was her first competition since the ban and secondly because she was wary and almost afraid of the response this would generate from other athletes, particularly myself.
“After chatting to her and her husband however, I got a growing sense of what they had actually been through since they began their whistleblowing procedure and how they had given their whole lives up and were practically living in isolation because they believed the Russian system was wrong.
“My negative emotions towards her immediately vanished and I began to get a sense of what they had actually given up, the choices they have had to make and the danger they had actually put themselves in.
“I'm not sure Yulia believes she can win a medal in Rio, indeed I'm not sure how far she believes she can progress during the competition at all. All I know is that she wants to run as well as she can and know that she has done this as a clean athlete. This said, of course the advantages she has gained through being on PEDs (2007 to 2012 according to her report) would still mean she benefits now in some way, which is why so many people are pushing for lifetime bans after a first doping offence.
"I would personally like to see Yulia at the Rio Games running under the Olympic flag as her actions since she tested positive for a doping violation do correlate well with the Olympic values and mission.
“I think Yulia and her husband need to be recognised for their efforts and all they have done to help develop a clean positive future for the sport of Athletics and we should champion them for doing so.
“As far as other Russian athletes go, I do not feel that they should be allowed to compete either under the Russian or Olympic flag during the Rio Games as there has not been enough time and measures taken place to guarantee that those athletes are competing clean.
“There are so many reports about Russia still failing to comply with new anti-doing measures and I feel participation by any Russian athlete would question the validity of their performance. Some clean athletes may suffer as a consequence of this however they have been let down by their National federation.”