Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell’s positive drug tests marked an arguable nadir for the sport’s reputation in recent years but while lacking the sporting currency to make an impact on the back-pages, the Russian track and field team has been a perennial fixture at the forefront of doping controversies over the past decade.
Jenny Meadows and Lynsey Sharp have been outspoken critics of Russian athletics after being denied major 800m accolades by subsequently-busted Russians while UK javelin record-holder Goldie Sayers was the latest name to publicly question whether the country is fit to host the World Championships with a banned list nudging the wrong side of the half-century mark.
The country’s inauspicious anti-doping record in all sports has led to similar questions surrounding next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi and scepticism about the country’s credentials to host such renowned global events have been fuelled further by Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay legislation recently coming into force.
Even though Russia swept the medals at the World University Games and what was in effect a B-team retained their European Team Championships title in Gateshead, it hasn’t been a memorable year for Russian athletics – so far, at least. Their leading athletes have not performed with the same distinction and many have kept very low-profiles. It was largely thought they were being kept under lock-and-key with the purpose of keeping their powder dry for the main events.
However, one couldn’t help but notice an alarming drop in standards across the board to last year at the Russian Championships. Granted, one or two medal contenders were pre-selected but regardless, the difference in standard was eye-catching. Eleven sub-50.5 and five sub-50 400m performances were recorded last year while the winning time in the 400m this year was a comparatively modest 50.55. The whole championships just produced a solitary sub-2:00 800m compared to eight in 2012, and twelve in 2004, while the winning time in the 200m this year was slower than the eighth-placer’s from last year.
So, what can we conclude from these results? Perhaps the Russian coaches are peaking their athletes in time for the World Championships rather than their domestic championships, as has sometimes been the case? Russian athletes do have a propensity for running fast domestically before failing to produce the same calibre of performance at the major championships.
Or are the testers starting to catch up with arguably the world’s most notoriously consistent, and persistent offenders? The biological passport system has proved a particularly effective innovation in catching out cheats while lauded medal-winners such as Svetlana Krivelyova and Tatyana Kotova (pictured) have recently been brought under disrepute with retrospective testing of samples from previous championships.
The much-maligned Russian system has been placed firmly under the spotlight and has such pressure combined with the growing militancy of anti-doping procedures acted as the much-needed push to start the clean-up of the Russian system which has sadly clouded the reputation of their athletes? Or will normal service be resumed once the focus shifts away post-Moscow and post-Sochi?
Let’s hope it’s the former and we can enjoy a controversy-free World Championships next month.