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Doping whistle-blowers have no plans to return to Russia

Russian doping whistleblower Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov (COMMISSION ON SECURITY AND COOPERATION IN EUROPE/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The Russian couple who played a major role in exposing the nation’s sports doping scandal said in an interview published on December 27 that they no longer consider Russia their home and have no plans to return to the country.

Vitaly and Yulia Stepanov live in the United States in an undisclosed location with their 7-year-old son and are waiting for an interview as part of their application for asylum, they told the German news agency dpa.

Russia, Vitaly Stepanov said, “is a place where we were born. We have no plans to go back to Russia.”

The couple fled Russia in 2014, initially landing in Germany, days before the screening of a documentary in which they detailed Russia’s state-sponsored doping program.

Stepanov said the family applied for asylum in the United States in 2016 and have been living a typical middle-class American life.

“Nobody really knows who we are,” he said in the telephone interview. “We don’t have many friends, but we do have friends that we appreciate and we are proud that they are part of our life.”

And he said he has no regrets about doing what they did six years ago.

“The truth came out and the relevant organizations were forced to deal with it. We are glad,” he said, “and in general I believe the anti-doping movement is stronger.”

The doping was exposed after Yulia Stepanova, a former top runner on Russia’s national team, made secret recordings of coaches and athletes. A German television documentary reported it largely based on the Stepanovs’ evidence.

That prompted a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) investigation aided by another whistle-blower — the former head of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory, Grigory Rodchenkov — that exposed state-sponsored doping practices and cover-ups in the country and at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

The result was a ban on Russia’s track-and-field team from the 2016 Olympics.

Earlier this month, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld doping sanctions that will prevent Russian athletes from competing at major sporting events under the country’s flag, but halved the period of the ban from four years to two.

The ban means Russia will not be allowed to use its flag and anthem at any major sporting events for the next two years.

Athletes will be able to compete under a neutral flag if they prove no connection to doping. They can wear a uniform bearing the Russian colors, but it cannot contain the Russian flag or any national symbol.

The ruling affects Russia’s participation in the delayed Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 Olympics.

Stepanov said he wished the punishment hadn’t been reduced, but he hoped it was proper, noting that “everybody has to live with this decision, including athletes from Russia.”

Stepanov believes that WADA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are doing more than in the past, despite wide-ranging criticism that they have been too lenient. But he has little hope that Russia will change its doping climate.

“The Russian government is not helping by continuing to cover up and cheat the Olympic movement. They are the main guilty party here,” Stepanov said.

Yuliya Stepanova receives funding from the IOC to help her train, while Stepanov works as an adviser to the organization.