Road To The Olympic Games

Rowing·Exclusive

Clean Russian athletes unfairly tarnished by doping scandal, says former Canadian rowing coach

One-time Canadian rowing coach Mike Spracklen moved to Russia in 2013 to coach and oversee its struggling program. Now, after guiding Canada to gold medals at the 1992 and 2008 Olympics, a doping scandal might prevent him from taking Russia's men's eight to Rio next month.

Mike Spracklen says it would be 'grossly unfair' to ban them from Rio Olympics

Former Canadian rowing coach Mike Spracklen, who now guides Russia's men's eight, might not get the chance to coach at his 10th Summer Olympics in Rio next month as the International Olympic Committee will explore legal options for a potential total ban on Russia from the Games. (Andy Clark/Reuters/File)

By Doug Harrison

Mike Spracklen sits in his Portugal hotel room, sounding much more defeated than the man who guided the Canadian men's eight rowing team to Olympic gold in 1992 and 2008.

He has little confidence that the Russian men's eight, the crew he has coached since arriving from Canada in 2013, will be competing at next month's Rio Olympics.

"The news that the whole Russian team will probably be banned is naturally disappointing," Spracklen said in an emailed statement. 

However, his hopes were raised somewhat with Tuesday's news that Summer Olympic sports federations are ready to deal with "individual cases" of Russian doping rather than endorse a blanket ban on the Russian team in Brazil.

The International Olympic Committee, on the other hand, says it will explore the legal options for a potential total ban on Russia from the Games, and is taking measures to punish athletes and officials involved in the state-run doping conspiracy.

Spracklen said his rowers have been tested up to 10 times in the last six months and feels let down by the positive drug test in May for the banned substance trimetazidine of 36-year-old Sergei Fedorovtsev that resulted in Russia's quadruple sculls to be disqualified from Rio. Fedorovtsev won gold in quadruple sculls at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Spracklen said he has "tremendous admiration" for Fedorovtsev, noting he still has some disbelief about the athlete's positive test because of the six-foot-four, 200-pounder's character.

"Sergei is a wonderful guy," Spracklen said over the phone. "But he was of the old school. He did come from a regime when [doping] was [the] norm and it's possible that he was mislead."

Spracklen, 78, accepted the Russian coaching job after Rowing Canada fired him in October 2012 when it announced changes to its coaching structure. Two months earlier, Spracklen levelled criticism at Rowing Canada for tweaking the program in the wake of a 2010 review.

I came to Russia with my eyes open. I knew there was a reputation [of cheating] but I thought it was a challenge and I wanted the challenge.- Former Canadian rowing coach Mike Spracklen , who now guides Russia's men's eight

Larry Tracey, a big supporter of Spracklen, his closest friend and a successful businessman from his hometown of Marlow, England, told him not to go to Russia.

"I came to Russia with my eyes open. I knew there was a reputation [of cheating] but I thought it was a challenge and I wanted the challenge," Spracklen said. "I wanted to help them … with morality of sport."

Known for his high-volume training in two extended stints with Rowing Canada, Spracklen told the Russian athletes upon his arrival that if they had help in the form of performance-enhancing drugs, they hadn't really won and achieved their goal.

To this day, Spracklen said his athletes are offended if someone mentions drugs to them and believes they have abided by the rules.

Spracklen added only the Russian athletes who have tested positive should be barred from the Rio Games. "Why paint everyone with the same brush?"

Monday's report by World Anti-Doping Agency investigator Richard McLaren listed 20 summer sports as being part of systematic cheating in Russia, and confirmed the manipulation of Russian doping samples at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

'We must protect the rights of athletes'

Adam Kreek, a member of Canada's Olympic men's eight in 2008 coached by Spracklen, doesn't have a problem with a Canadian coaching Russian athletes, given the controversy.

"Spracklen has always been a firm and adamant supporter of clean sport," Kreek wrote in an email to CBC Sports. "We must protect the rights of athletes and keep their health in the highest regard.

"Proven drug cheats should be prosecuted, banned and punished [but] clean Russians should be allowed to compete."

Rio would be the 10th Olympic Games for Spracklen, whose son Adrian would be by his side. The latter took a year off from his job as rowing coach at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., last October to help the Russian women's team make an Olympic push.

"My biggest disappointment will be for the [rowers] should they be banned [from Rio]. I'll feel really hurt," said the elder Spracklen, whose men's eight finished second at the European Rowing Championships in May. "There are genuine athletes here who haven't abused the rules. It would be grossly unfair for those guys to be banned.

"If they aren't, as long as they put on a good show, fly the flag and are competitive, I'll be content."

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.