A walk in the dope lane

Athletics: Russians top the list of drug cheats in the world and the man behind their top walkers is in the dock

A walk in the dope lane

The palatial glass-and-steel Olympic Training Center of the Republic of Mordovia rises from the flattened landscape of Saransk, a small industrial city in Russia’s rust belt. Saransk does not have much of a profile, even in Russia. Gérard Depardieu bought a house here to escape French taxes. It was once a popular spot for gulags. But it is basically the Russian equivalent of flyover country — unless you happen to be a fan of racewalking.

Racewalking is the peculiar track and field event that elicits snickers every four years when its athletes are seen wiggling toward the finish line in the Summer Olympics. Throughout most of the world, it resides somewhere between niche and punch line.

But not in Saransk. Here, racewalking is as big as soccer. The walkers will seemingly go to any lengths, legal or not, to be competitive. They are local celebrities. Their wan faces emblazon billboards and trading cards. The Olympic Training Center, where athletes train on a 3.2-kilometre wooded path, is one of the largest, most important facilities in the world devoted to the sport. The high-tech, live-in center has churned out champions for the past decade with the machine-like regularity of a Soviet production line and led Russia to dominate the sport on the world stage.

“Our guys aren’t treated as if they’re rock stars like they are over there,” said Brent Vallance, a former racewalker and coach for Australia’s national team who spent time in Saransk during two stints as a guest trainer. “The fact that they have young people wanting to do this sport en masse is something that’s always going to get them ahead.”

At the helm of the Russian racewalking programme is Viktor Chegin, the sandy-haired, dark-eyed trainer whose name adorns the facade of the center in Saransk. Responsible for coaching all three Russian athletes who swept the 2009 World Championships, as well as multiple Olympic medal winners and world-record holders in the years since, Chegin was exalted to hero stature here, formally named a “Chevalier of the Order of Glory of Mordovia” and proclaimed by the local government “the father of all the victories of our racewalkers.”

But now Chegin and the racewalking center in Saransk are in the middle of one of the biggest doping scandals in the history of track and field. As far back as 2008, Chegin faced accusations of systematic doping when five of his athletes tested positive for banned substances on the eve of the Beijing Olympics. To date, 26 Russian racewalkers have been barred from the sport for doping violations, at least 20 of them trained by Chegin.

Several of Chegin’s athletes are serving lifetime bans for use of EPO, a blood-doping agent that improves oxygen delivery to the muscles but also increases the likelihood of thrombosis and stroke. Many have had medals rescinded. One of his walkers, German Skurygin, died of a heart attack at age 45 a few years after being stripped of his world championship gold for doping.

Yet for years, even as his walkers were caught again and again, Chegin largely emerged unscathed, and the center in Mordovia continued to receive hundreds of millions of rubles in federal and state funding. Last year, the Russian government allocated an additional 375 million rubles to the center, which contains a full-time coaching, living and training environment, part of the city’s preparation to host soccer’s 2018 World Cup.

Even after July 2014, when Chegin was officially fired from Russia’s national team after five new doping violations finally led to an investigation by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, or Rusada, he has continued to train athletes in Saransk and attend bombastic ceremonies in his own honour, and he was there on the sideline at the European championships last August in Zurich.

It was not until the beginning of this year that track and field’s world governing body, the IAAF, together with Russia’s antidoping agency and the World Anti-Doping Agency, began a series of investigations against Chegin, prompted largely by a sort of online vigilante campaign run by a group of racewalkers from Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

No matter, Chegin continues to draw broad support at home. A poll in January by the leading Russian web portal mail.ru showed that 72 percent of respondents thought the doping scandal was, entirely or in part, a Western conspiracy against Russia.

Chegin declined to be interviewed for this article. Dozens of attempts to contact current and former Russian racewalkers and trainers — by phone, by email, in person and through various social media — were unsuccessful. The Russian Athletics Federation, the national governing body for athletics, which is also under investigation by the IAAF for allegations that it tried to cover up doping violations, also declined to discuss doping or the racewalking programme.
Even as the Russian racewalking programme has repeatedly run afoul of antidoping rules, residents of Saransk, a city of 300,000 about 400 miles east of Moscow, continue to rally behind Chegin.

Alexander Parshutkin, a 51-year-old former defense ministry contractor, said: “I think it’s all just once again people out to get Russia. It’s America. They want to weaken us. It’s all connected with politics.”

The public perception in Russia that antidoping measures are a form of western subterfuge dates to the Cold War, when Soviet research laboratories operated under heavy secrecy, making allegations difficult to substantiate. When athletes were caught doping at international competitions, it was often depicted by state propaganda as part of a Western conspiracy to smear the Soviet Union. This attitude persisted into the 1990s and 2000s, and Russia lacked a national antidoping agency until 2008, when Rusada was founded.

“We have received a quite complicated legacy,” said Igor Zagorsky, Rusada’s director general, who oversees the current investigation of Chegin and the Saransk center. “If we go back to the beginning of the millennium, the understanding of this problem in Russian society is that Russian athletes are being followed and discriminated against, and that antidoping is being used just to harm Russian sports.”

Outside of Russia, however, the situation looks considerably different. Over the past decade, resentment has grown among other national teams as more and more Russian racewalkers were caught doping but continued to dominate international competitions.

“The last couple years I started getting really angry, knowing I’m racing against doped-up athletes,” said Jared Tallent, an Australian racewalking champion who has repeatedly finished second or third at World Championships behind Russian walkers who were coached by Chegin and later barred for doping.

"They just lie and deny it. They say we’re jealous. But it’s pretty clear how they’re performing so well.

“He’s cheating, and it’s bad for the sport.”
The scales might have finally tipped against Chegin. The IAAF, WADA and Rusada are conducting multiple investigations against him and the Olympic Training Center in Saransk, all of which are set to conclude by the end of the year.

“It’s a very hard thing to establish,” Zagorsky said. “We have a lot of evidence that leads us to believe that Chegin, yes, he is committing antidoping rule violations. But now we have to prove it.”

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