Rio 2016: Yuliya Stepanova highlights perils of whistle-blowing

  • Amit Kamath, Hindustan Times, MUMBAI
  • Updated: Aug 16, 2016 12:18 IST
An 800m runner, Yuliya Stepanova and husband Vitaly, who worked with the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, exposed systemic doping in the east European country. (REUTERS)

If there was doubt over why no one ever spoke out against state-sponsored doping in Russia despite its widespread nature, one has to look at Yuliya Stepanova and husband Vitaly.

Yuliya, an 800m runner Yuliya, and Vitaly, who worked with the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA), exposed systemic doping in the east European country which has led to all but one of Russia’s track and field athletes to be barred from the ongoing Rio Olympics.

In 2010, Vitaly, then working with RUSADA, first contacted the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) with information about the culture of doping in Russian sports before he and Yuliya spoke to German broadcaster ARD in 2014, which brought out the scandal in the open.

This has been a bittersweet victory for the couple who have been on the run since 2014, briefly staying in Germany before moving to USA. There is an ever-present threat to their lives, demonstrated when Yuliya’s e-mail account and her Adams account (her anti-doping control account at WADA) was hacked on Thursday. Athlete’s Adams account lists their whereabouts, so it is evident there was an attempt to uncover her location. The twin breaches forced the family to immediately flee their house and relocate to a new location.

“If something happens to us, you should know it is not an accident. We are trying to take every measure possible to keep ourselves safe, which is why we moved. At the same time, we realise that if somebody really wanted to do something to us, they would probably succeed. We are very worried about our safety because we have a small child. We have plans with certain people that should something happen to us, they should take care of our son,” Yuliya told a select group of journalists, including this correspondent, on a video conference call on Monday from a secret location in USA.

“When we found out that my Adams account was also hacked, that alarmed us because the only reason someone would hack it is to find out your exact location. I started getting anxious wondering who needed this information and why, so we decided it would be safer if we relocate,” she added.

The hacking incidents have cast a sinister shadow over all of Yuliya’s competitions in the future.

“There’s always a chance that someone will try to hurt us when I am competing at an event in the future. But hopefully the situation will quieten down and there will be a safer time for us,” she said.

Yuliya added she is actually glad not to be competing at the Rio Olympics, given the multiple reports of armed thefts and other violent incidents that have been reported recently. On Sunday, US swimmer Ryan Lochte and his teammates were robbed at gunpoint while last week a bus carrying media was attacked. “After reading the news about what is happening in Rio, on some level I’m glad that I didn’t go there. If someone wanted to hurt us, it would be very easy to do it there,” she said, but added, “I’m a little upset that I can’t compete in Rio. This was my dream.”

Yuliya was cleared by the athletics’ world governing body IAAF to compete in Rio under the neutral flag but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) shot down her case as she had previously failed a doping test in 2013.

“The fact that I was denied a chance to compete in Rio will signal to other potential whistleblowers that there’s a chance that they will not be supported. So if you open your mouth, you will never be an Olympic athlete,” she said even as her husband added: “One of the questions we raised before IOC was that it is most likely that if Yuliya had not said anything, she would have a bigger chance to be in Rio. She took another path, by competing honestly and respecting competitors. The IOC said ‘nice intention, but we don’t care’.”

The two are currently jobless in USA and awaiting their work permits. Vitaly lost his job with RUSADA five years ago for “speaking out against doping”, he claimed before adding, “Russian athletes know exactly what is happening in Russia. If you have been a professional athlete for three years, you know what’s going on. I wish Russian athletes started to tell the truth. The problem everyone faces in Russia is that as soon as you open your mouth you will be fired by all the places that you are employed by. You will have to start a new career in a different field. Athletes just don’t want to lose all of their salary because they have families as well. There is nowhere you can go to in Russia.”

Yuliya said her only regret was not having reported the systemic doping earlier. However, given all that has happened to the couple ever since they spoke up, other potential whistleblowers will be forced to ask themselves, ‘Is it worth it?’

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