'It's hit us very painfully': Russian track athletes react to extension of international ban over doping
They have option to apply as 'neutrals' for world championships and compete without their flag
World champion high jumper Maria Kuchina easily defeated her competition at the Russian indoor track championships in Moscow last weekend. But the 24-year-old was still frustrated and disappointed because she faces a second straight year barred from international competition thanks to her country's scandalous doping record.
"It's hit us very painfully. It is very sad, not right and not fair for the clean athletes, but we are not giving up," she told CBC News, a day before the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) made it official and extended its ban against Russian athletes until at least November 2017.
Kuchina was part of Russia's Olympic track team that was denied the right to compete in Rio de Janeiro last August after an investigation found evidence of a massive, state-sponsored program for performance-enhancing drugs.
She called it the worst time in her career.
"It was hard, because it was my dream. We went towards it until the last moment, till the beginning of August. I even didn't watch the Games on TV. I absolutely closed this page and I don't want to reopen it."
More work to do
Russian sports officials had hoped their efforts in the past year to clean up the system would be enough to satisfy the IAAF and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
The head of Russian track and field, Dmitry Shlyakhtin, appointed last year after the doping scandal broke, says he's focussed on meeting international testing standards to get the ban lifted.
"I am absolutely transparent and clean and doing many things to change track and field from its core, from the perspective of morals, and doping," he said.
IAAF president Sebastian Coe acknowledged "there have been some subtle shifts" in Russia's anti-doping regime.
"I think there is a recognition that this clearly has been a very disfiguring episode in Russian sport," he said, but much work remains to be done.
RUSADA is still not accredited, for example, so no testing is being done at its Moscow lab.
"Only once RUSADA is deemed compliant again, will WADA examine and discuss the possible re-accreditation of the laboratory," the international doping authority said in a statement.
A large part of Russia's rehabilitation effort involves changing its sports culture. RUSADA says it's focussed on educating the next generation of athletes.
At last weekend's indoor championships, tucked in behind the track was a row of laptops set up for an online quiz to test how much athletes and coaches know about anti-doping regulations and practices.
Questions included: How long can urine samples be stored and then analyzed? The answer: 10 years. The prize for at least eight correct answers was a key chain or a USB stick.
Margarita Paknotskaya, RUSADA's head of education, says prevention is key to the strategy.
"When people know how to behave, what are sports values, what are the rules ... that is the main idea of how to reduce doping in sports."
But the IAAF says another key is missing from Russia's reform efforts.
Russian officials have acknowledged the country's doping problem, but they continue to reject the conclusions of WADA and Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren, who found the "Ministry of Sport directed, controlled and oversaw manipulation of athletes analytical results and sample swapping" — in effect, that doping was state sponsored.
Vitaly Smirnov, a former Soviet-era sports minister who heads the Russian Olympic Committee's new anti-doping commission, declared "Russia has never had a state-sponsored system of doping."
IAAF officials suggest that lack of acknowledgement is part of the barrier keeping Russian athletes from international competitions.
The 'neutral' option
Back at the track, Russian long jumper Darya Klishina easily takes first place.
She has trained in Florida for years, which helped her successfully appeal her ban as a Russian athlete at the Rio Olympics. But her status was precarious until close to the Games. Once in Rio, she was under intense pressure and scrutiny as the only Russian track athlete competing.
"It was so hard. I don't want to be in that situation again, like never."
She feels for her colleagues still barred from competing in March's European indoor championships in Belgrade, Serbia.
"It's not only a Russian problem, it's a world problem," she said. "I hope the situation is going to be better."
But Russian track athletes have an option for this summer's world championships in London. They can apply to compete as "neutrals," meaning they're not associated with the Russian team. Thirty-five athletes have already done so. They have to pass a series of drug tests conducted outside Russia before they can be accepted.
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