Merry Christmas, Mrs Stepanova

Amid this season of back-slapping and bonhomie, The Mixed Zone Editor Sue Mott nominates her choice for Sports Personalities of the Year. Sadly, the Russian anti-drug whistle-blowers will not be able to collect their award.

Somewhere out there Yuliya Stepanova is celebrating Christmas. Perhaps that should be a question. Is she? Can she celebrate a year living in exile with her husband Vitaly, and little son Robert, on a tiny island intentionally lost to the outside world that has hailed them and renounced them in equal part? Especially in Russia, their homeland, where they are reviled as virtual traitors to their country and their sport. Their crime? They blew the whistle on a state-sponsored doping system in sport that reached the highest echelon in governance.

’Tis the season of sports awards, jollity and back-slapping, yet funnily enough the Stepanovs figure nowhere. Their whereabouts are deliberately vague. Poison-tipped umbrellas and polonium spring to mind, perhaps overwrought imaginings, but who knows. Their testimony, supported by secret recordings and films on their smart phones, exposed the extent of skullduggery in their nation’s athletic culture and the collusion of the world athletic governing body, now run by Seb Coe, the IAAF. Their story is a thriller brought to life: Smiley’s People meets The Wire.

Heroics are lauded in sport every day, but here are two genuine heroes who risked the lives they had known, and their attachment to their country, for the sake of telling the truth. For Vitaly, who worked for the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, it was nothing less than a crusade. Yet for Yuliya, an elite Russian 800 metres runner, it was more morally complex. She was a drug-taker herself. From what we now know, it was impossible to be part of the Russian athletic establishment without being exposed to illegal doping.

To all intents, her husband, recruited her as a spy. For the good guys but even so. Her courage operating within an entirely corrupted environment was immense. At one stage Yuliya accused her husband: “You’re ruining my life.” That life as a competitive athlete, complete with dreams of success, medals, Olympic podiums, was over. But, ultimately sharing the same mission, she persevered.

Daily events in her life were like scenes you have to watch through your fingers during Homeland. She must have lived in fear of exposure and retribution. She was obliged to make clandestine recordings of teammates, like the current Russian 800 metres champion, Anastasiya Bazdyreva talking about intimate details concerning drugs. She filmed her friend, Mariya Savinova, the 2012 800 metres champion, in another recording that was ultimately handed to  the World Anti-Doping Agency and the German investigative journalist Hajo Seppelt, who along with the Sunday Times, went public with the accusations.

Denials spread like wildfire throughout the sport. When further revelations were made about IAAF cover-ups of suspicious blood values, WADA President Sir Craig Reedie initially called them “wide and wild allegations”.  This from the figurehead of the body whose clue is in the title.

In November 2014, the Stepanovs flew from Moscow with their baby son, escaping to Prague and on-going banishment to the island where for a year they have lived in virtual isolation. Their mutual sense of justice trumped their fears, and they were vindicated in November when a 323-page report by a WADA Independent Commission supported every word and accusation they had made. Their recordings were the lynchpin of the report.

There has been a hasty flurry of exposed corruptions, resignations, pending court cases and the Russians have been suspended from world athletic competition, including the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Few within the sport expect that suspension to hold.

Inconvenient truths, no matter how valiant the individuals who reveal them, are ever subject to revision by those that wield power. Is athletics now clean? Absolutely not. Is it better? Perhaps. Is it a temporary cleansing? Possibly. We know that Sir Craig Reedie has sent an email to Natalia Zhelanova, advisor to the Russian Sports Minister, Vitaly Mutko, saying: “On personal level I value the relationship I have with Minister Mutko and I should be grateful if you would inform him that there is no intention in WADA to do anything to affect that relationship.”

That can’t have been a Christmas message of cheer to the Stepanovs.

So while we celebrate the brilliant sporting performances of the year, it would be right to acknowledge a couple who have been conspicuously missing from the red carpets. They’re out there somewhere, having performed what has been described as “the greatest act of whistleblowing sport has ever seen”. The hope exists that one day they feel able to come in from the cold. And beyond that, may their sport surrender to a drug-free ethos one day – not merely in weasel word, but in deed.

Merry Christmas, Yuliya and Vitaly Stepanov.



Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles

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