On Nov. 9, news broke that four more Russian cross-country skiers had been sanctioned for cheating during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. So far, six Russian nordic athletes in total have had their 2014 Olympic results erased by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). These athletes are also prohibited from participating in all future Olympics due to their affiliation with Russia’s elaborate-state sanctioned doping enterprise.
Julia Ivanova, half of Russia’s 2014 Olympic team-sprint duo, is one of the six penalized Russians. In Sochi, Ivanova and her teammate Anastasia Dotsenko skied to 10th place in the classic team sprint. (Thus far, Dotsenko has not been implicated in the doping scheme.)
It’d be easy to say the Russian pair was way out of the medals — theirs was simply another tainted performance already removed from the official results.
Yet among those clean athletes caught up in the win-at-all-costs mantra of the Sochi doping regime are Canada’s team-sprint pair Perianne Jones, now 32, and Dasha Gaiazova Atkins, 33. Looking back, “What might of been?” is a legitimate question the two retired skiers have asked.
Ivanova and Dotsenko made the Sochi team-sprint final as what’s referred to as lucky losers — 10th place in their semifinal wasn’t enough for them to automatically advance but their time was fast enough relative to the rest of the field to put them through to the final. Jones and Gaiazova Atkins were right behind them in 11th, which was the end of their day.
“I texted Peri that morning when the article came out in Fasterskier and said, ‘Should we start training for a redo?’ ” Gaiazova Atkins, who was born in Russia but spent more than half of her life in Canada, said on the phone from her home in Calgary. “Because we could have been in the finals and then you never know how that goes. It could have had a much, much better result and we could have had a chance for a medal.”
One year before the 2014 Olympics, at the pre-Olympic World Cup in Sochi, Jones and Gaiazova (the latter of which has been married since, hence the new last name) placed third in the classic team sprint. Notably, they were third in a photo finish with the second-place Russians — Ivanova teamed up with Natalia Matveeva in that race.
Jones first heard about the Ivanova news through Gaiazova Atkins’s text message.
“When it goes back and you realize that something could have gone a little bit differently or wonder what could’ve been, then you think about it a lot more and it definitely hits you a little personally,” Jones said on the phone from Canmore, Alberta. “For sure, it makes me feel sick and I cannot go back. No one can. That’s the unfair part. … It’s an interesting conundrum: people have put their lives into something and then are not given a fair chance.”
The “what if” part of this story is multi-layered. Ivanova raced twice in the 2014 Olympics before the team sprint; first in the 10-kilometer classic on Feb. 13 and again in the 4 x 5 k relay on Feb. 15. What if Ivanova had been tested after those races and a legit lab had found her to be doped? What if Ivanova and Dotsenko never raced the team sprint on Feb. 19? Or a different iteration of Russians were slower in the semis? On paper at least, in this post-Sochi thought experiment, the Canadians advance to the final as lucky losers.
The perspective of time buffered by athletic retirement seemed to have taken the edge off the tone of both Jones and Gaiazova Atkins, based on their voices over the phone. They both sounded calm and measured, without a sense of bitterness. But they raised several important points as the fallout from the Russia’s doping program continues.
On Jones’s mind were those athletes still competing, and those wondering if they, too, are racing in an unlevel playing field.
“I am retired now,” Jones said. “So it would have been tough had all this stuff been coming out as I was still ski racing. I think it is tough for the athletes who are still competing now. Not that it is easy to hear about it after the fact, but you definitely have to believe you can do it while you are ski racing. I imagine that at least most of the playing field is clean and that would be hard given everything that has transpired over the last little while.”
Gaiazova Atkins’s story resonates due to her literal mid-teen continental shift. At the age of 15, she moved with her family from Russia to Quebec. Although she started skiing in Russia, her swift trajectory up into the international ranks began as a Canadian. She did, however, recall a Russian ski culture where more than a healthy lifestyle choice was on the line.
“I would say there is more pressure in Russia,” Gaiazova Atkins said. “And maybe because in Russia, in so many ways the country is so far behind in development … they have very few resources. So there is a lot of pressure to become a big skier because if you can race fast, you can do quite well for yourself in the country. … In America, it is not the same. And here in Canada, Chandra [Crawford] got a gold medal, shake her hand and off she goes to get an education.”
Gaiazova Atkins’s perspective was one of trying to humanizing cheaters and would-be cheats, people with families and their own demons straddling their shoulders.
“The incentive to perform is so much higher in Russia,” Gaiazova Atkins said. “And the alternative? You can live in poverty and then, OK, I am going to take a chance. So for a lot of athletes, it may not be perceived as high risk because it’s the only chance to do well in life.”
While she expressed that blame should be placed on those involved, Gaiazova Atkins emphasized truly understanding an athlete’s complicity.
“I know these girls and I know the guys who are now being stripped of their results,” she said. “I follow them on Instagram and I see what they are saying in Russian, and it’s crazy they are still denying they did this. But then, you think about a big country like Russia and the whole thing, you almost ask yourself, ‘Did the athletes even know this was happening? Did they have any say?’ It is just like, you have no choice as an athlete.”
Several times, Gaiazova Atkins stated her belief that the doping was a top-down mandate, a state-sanctioned endeavor with upper-government power plays manifesting with Sochi podiums. But she’s also no apologist.
“I follow on Instagram and their posts from all those guys, like Legkov and people that support him,” she said. “They say, we are with [Legkov] because we know how hard he works and how much work ethic he has. And I am thinking to myself, every single person racing is working just as hard and harder.
“I feel sorry for those athletes, especially those who aren’t as systematic like the state-supervised program,” she added. “The ones who choose themselves and go to doctors, no pity for you.”
As far as moving forward, Gaiazova Atkins said she was in favor of nothing less than a wholesale Russian ban from the upcoming PyeongChang Games.
“You cannot slap them on the hand and say, ‘OK, don’t do this next time, please’,” she said. “It has to be with consequences for the state, for the country.”
Gaiazova Atkins also believes that Ivanova’s doping has had lasting impact on potential funding for the current crop of Canadian cross-country skiers. “Eleventh place is not a top 10,” she said.
“Cross Country Canada funding is based on our results, and there is a big difference between a top 10 and 11th place sometimes,” she added. “To take us out of the equation, this had a trickle effect on the whole system, like our whole nation may have been affected by the funding because we did not get a top-10 result.”
As the concentric ripples from Russian doping in Sochi move outward, they’ve arrived in North America, nearly four years late, with the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, on the horizon.