Canadians may benefit from Russian track ban at Rio Olympics

Canada's Olympic trials for track and field are happening this week amid perhaps the greatest turmoil to ever touch the sport.

Melissa Bishop, Derek Drouin among those who could see finish improve

Canada's Derek Drouin won gold in the high jump at the World Championships in Beijing last August. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)

By Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

When Melissa Bishop steps up to the 800-metre start line at the Rio Olympics, she won't worry about the women in the lanes to her left and right — or the country's colours they're wearing.

Canada's Olympic trials for track and field are happening this week amid perhaps the greatest turmoil to ever touch the sport.

Russian track and field athletes have been banned from competing in Rio because of systematic doping, although IAAF president Seb Coe said 136 Russian athletes have applied for clearance to compete as independent athletes.

Their absence could affect a few Canadians in Rio, but Bishop, a silver medallist at last summer's world championships in Beijing, said she can only focus on herself.

"They are competitors in the end, so yeah, it does affect us, but I can't control it so it's something I've had to put out of my head, regardless of what the decision is by the IAAF," Bishop said. 

Regular medal contenders out

Russians Mariya Savinova and Ekaterina Poistogova won gold and bronze respectively in the 800 four years ago at the London Olympics. Bishop didn't make it out of her heat, which included Russian Yelena Arzhakova, whose results were later erased due to a doping ban.

"Not that it would have changed the outcome of what I did, but it is in the back of your head, 'OK, if she wasn't there, maybe I would have got to that semifinal and things would have been a little bit different,"' Bishop said. "I think if I was in position as I am now as an athlete, and a medal was taken away from me, I would have a lot more probably to say."

Yulia Stepanova, a Russian who ran 1:56.99 in the 800 metres prior to a doping ban (Bishop's Canadian record by comparison is 1:57.52), was the whistleblower who blasted open the doping scandal. She competed as an independent at this week's European championships, but tore a ligament in her foot, putting her Rio Games in doubt.

Canada's Hilary Stellingwerff missed out on the 1,500-metre final in London by just one spot, and six runners in that final have since had their names scratched out for doping infractions.

Stellingwerff hopes for a "re-do" in Rio, but must qualify first in a stacked women's 1,500 field at the trials. Stellingwerff is one of five Canadian woman who've already run the qualifying standard and are battling for just three spots. The others who've hit the qualifying mark are Sheila Reid, Nicole Sifuentes, Fiona Benson and Gabriella Stafford.

"To be honest, if it didn't happen, it would cause me to question the value of clean sport to IAAF, and I would honestly question even being in Rio if I made it," Stellingwerff said the day the IAAF announced the Russian ban. "What's the point?"

'My goal is unchanged'

Reigning world high jump champion Derek Drouin said Russians are traditionally strong his event. But like Bishop, he's only concerned about himself.

"It's not as if I would be training any harder if I knew that Russia was going to be there or not, it doesn't change anything in my leadup, in my training, so whether they're there on that day or not, my goal is unchanged," Drouin said.

Russia's Ivan Ulhov won gold in Drouin's event in London, but the Coruna, Ont., native says it's not worth looking at results and wonder: what if?

"I feel like when people start thinking like that, it can only lead to trouble and heartache," Drouin said.

Russia's drug-fuelled race walking team didn't compete at last year's world championships, and coach Viktor Chegin was banned for life in March after more than 25 doping cases by Russian walkers.

"For me personally, this means that I can stand on the start line in Rio with a much cleaner field and much greater confidence in chasing my lifelong dream of standing on that Olympic podium," Canadian walker Evan Dunfee said.

Many believe the Russian scandal is merely the surface of a big doping can of worms.

"It's a long way to go still, we need to continue scraping off the cheaters, as we're doing," said Peter Eriksson, Athletics Canada's head coach. "But we only have part of the iceberg right now, there are sprint nations and endurance nations that we still haven't scrutinized.

He pointed to coach Jama Aden, who was arrested recently on suspicion of administering and distributing doping materials. Among Aden's athletes: world 1,500-metre champion Genzebe Dibaba of Ehtiopia, a favourite for gold in Rio.

"It's good to have an impact," Eriksson said. "Certain teams will benefit from it like us, Great Britain, France, Germany, all the countries that have scrutinized their athletes well. So it could be a benefit to us, depending on the event that it's more prevalent in."