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'Neutral' Russian Track Athletes Fighting For Medals, Pride At World Championships

Sergei Shubenkov poses on the podium with the silver medal he won in the 110-meter hurdles event at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London, where he competed as a neutral athlete.

Russian star 110-meter hurdler Sergei Shubenkov said "the Jamaican was just too fast" in explaining his "disappointing" silver-medal finish at the track and field world championships in London earlier this week.

But the 26-year-old Shubenkov -- one of only 19 Russian athletes allowed to compete as "authorized neutral athletes" due to a drug ban on Russia's track athletes -- was surprised when he received a hero's welcome upon arriving at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on August 9.

"I feel like I am being congratulated more now than if I had won gold and if I had won it as part of the normal Russian team," Shubenkov told the Reuters news agency amid jubilant fans.

Still reeling from a November 2015 ban by the IAAF, the world governing body of track and field, that stemmed from allegations that Moscow was backing a massive doping program, Russia's neutral athletes are not allowed to show their flag and are forbidden from wearing their national colors. The measures leave the Russian flag's white, red, and blue banned from headbands, bandages, and even women's fingernails.

Perhaps the bitterest pill to swallow for Russian athletes is that if one of them wins a gold it won't be the Russian national hymn that will be played at the medal ceremony in the stadium, but rather the IAAF "anthem."

Russian athletes are even forbidden from singing or mouthing the words of their anthem -- though the penalty for such patriotic behavior is unclear.

Shubenkov called the IAAF restrictions "tough and a bit ridiculous," and jokingly asked if Russian athletes would be forbidden from having "a bear on a leash."

But the Russians competing in London are rallying around their "neutral" status and difficult conditions -- with many not having competed in international track meets for nearly two years.

"Everyone who's [in London] will support the others," said Russian pole vaulter Anzhelika Sidorova, adding that the Russian athletes are "all friends like never before."

The silver medal won on August 7 by Shubenkov -- who has been outspoken on Twitter and Instagram with anti-Western, ultrapatriotic messages -- has been lauded in the Russian press with headlines along the lines of "this silver is worth its weight in gold," Slava Malamud, a U.S.-based columnist for Sovetsky Sport, told RFE/RL.

Mother Russia 'Unbowed'

Reigning world high jump champion Maria Lasitskene is a "neutral" athlete who is heavily favored to win a gold medal in London when her competition is held on August 12.

Lasitskene -- who missed the Rio Olympics last year because of the ban but has dominated her sport this year competing as a neutral athlete -- said before the world championships that she "doesn't want to waste" her emotions on the doping controversy.

"If [Lasitskene] wins the gold, she will be both a hero and martyr because of the whole situation [regarding] the anthem and the flag," said Malamud. "And even despite her Lithuanian last name (she's married to a Lithuanian) she will be celebrated as this embodiment of heroic, unbent, unbowed Mother Russia."

Russian high jumper Maria Lasitskene (file photo)
Russian high jumper Maria Lasitskene (file photo)

Russian officials' pre-London predictions of winning between five and seven medals during the championships are currently looking overly optimistic.

As of August 10, 10 of Russia's 19 neutral athletes had finished competing, with only Shubenkov winning a medal.

Many athletes have said they hope they can soon compete under the Russian flag, but it's unclear how long the ban against Russia's track athletes will last.

IAAF President Sebastian Coe offered some praise for Dmitry Shlyakhtin, the new head of the Russian athletics federation (RusAF), for an apology he made at the IAAF Congress in London on August 3.

Shlyakhtin apologized to "all athletes who have had gold and silver medals snatched from them at competitions" due to Russian athletes using performance-enhancing drugs.

But even after Shlyakhtin's mea culpa, the IAAF decided by an overwhelming 166-21 vote in London to continue RusAF's suspension because it still had several criteria to meet.

The next chance the Russian track athletes have to see the ban fully lifted is in November, after a review of Russia's anti-doping practices by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

'Devastating Effect'

It was an investigation by WADA in late 2015 which alleged that Russian track and field athletes had been part of a massive doping program being run with the complicity of government officials, allegations that the Kremlin has denied. A second investigation, whose findings were made public in the July 2016 McClaren Report, found evidence of a doping program that involved more than 1,000 athletes in some 30 sports. It led to the IAAF banning Russian track athletes from the Rio Olympics.

Shlyakhtin admitted that the ban was having a "devastating effect" on Russian athletics.

He said it had caused coaches to leave Russia, TV stations to show less track and field events, and promising young athletes to take up other sports.

Sports analysts agreed.

"The disqualification of the Russian track and field athletes damages the development of the sport [in Russia]," Andrei Kondrashov, a sports moderator at Russian Eurosport, told RFE/RL.

He added that Russian television stations were debating whether to even televise the world championships, and only decided to do so after news that the 19 Russian athletes had been cleared by the IAAF to compete in London.

"For [nearly] two years they have almost killed Russian athletics because there were no international competitions, no money [for the athletes]," Vladimir Geskin, a track and field analyst and former journalist at the Moscow daily Sport Ekspress, told RFE/RL.

"The problem is that some athletes will retire [early]," Geskin said. "And our junior teams have not competed on an international level [since late 2015]. [The ban] will do a lot of harm."

Wrong Mindset?

But for some, Russian officials still have the wrong mindset in order for the ban on Russia's track athletes to be lifted.

"There is an absolute lack of self-awareness and self-blame for what has happened," said Malamud. "The narrative [about the ban on Russia for doping] is and always was: 'it is a major international conspiracy [and] a political movement designed to punish Russia because Russia has become so strong.' [Or] the universal fall back: 'everybody dopes, why are we being singled out?'"

Malamud concluded: "When it comes to the Russian government, I think the number one priority for it is not so much to clean up and reform what they are doing, but to simply get the ban lifted and then as quickly as possible get the system working again the same way it was working before...but just guide it a little bit better next time."

(With reporting by