When the world’s best cross-country skiers stand on the start line for the men’s 50-kilometer freestyle, the final race of the 2011 World Ski Championships in Oslo, they will do so alongside Sergey Shiriaev, a Russian athlete who served a two-year doping ban between 2007 and 2009 and continues to work with controversial coach Anatoly Tchepalov.
Tchepalov is currently serving a ban of his own for connections with athletes involved with doping: a four-year sanction handed down by the Russian Ski Federation (FLGR), which prohibits him from working with members of the country’s national ski team.
The ban, though, doesn’t prevent him from working with Shiriaev, who gave up a spot on the Russian squad in order to work with Tchepalov, according to the Russian newspaper Kommersant.
Shiriaev’s start at the championships seems incongruous with the recent anti-doping rhetoric and action from FLGR. But as it turns out, his road to the championships wasn’t easy. Thus far this season, he has yet to start in an individual World Cup competition, and he had to earn his bib as the winner of Russia’s 50-kilometer qualifying race.
And, in an interview Saturday, FLGR President Elena Vyalbe told FasterSkier that Shiriaev’s coach, Tchepalov, would not make an appearance at the championships.
“He will not be here,” she said.
The news that Tchepalov will not be in attendance, combined with the fact that Shiriaev’s ticket to Oslo was based on objective criteria, suggested to at least one North American skier that FLGR was taking its anti-doping work seriously.
“[Shiriaev] made the team the hardest way possible, without a single chance on the World Cup. I think that sends a strong message,” said Canada’s Devon Kershaw.
FLGR has been under close scrutiny over the past two ski seasons, after eight of its athletes were sanctioned for doping during that period.
Most notably, in the summer of 2009, three Russians—including two former Olympic champions—received bans for positive tests for the blood-boosting drug EPO during the previous year, and three more were suspended for rules violations during the 2010 season.
In response, last spring, FLGR was fined more than $180,000 by the International Ski Federation (FIS), but after banning Tchepalov and seven other tarnished coaches in the fall, the organization escaped a second round of fines and penalties.
They have made things especially difficult for Tchepalov, the father and former coach of Julia Tchepalova, the triple
Olympic gold medalist who is among the group of three that tested positive for EPO in 2009.
Athletes choosing to work with Tchepalov, including Shiriaev and Olympic medalist Vasily Rochev, have had to give up spots on the Russian national team.
And according to Andrey Kondrashov, a Russian Eurosport commentator, Tchepalov was originally planning on attending the championships in Oslo, but cancelled his trip when FLGR refused to provide him with accreditation.
Shiriaev does continue to work with Tchepalov. But neither Kershaw nor the Canadian team’s head coach, Justin Wadsworth, said that they saw any problems with the arrangement.
“I think it’s probably all they can do,” Wadsworth said. “They can’t ban that athlete just for association, until he’s caught for actually doping.”
Policing any kind of a ban on working with a specific coach would be impractical, Wadsworth added—technology like e-mail would make relationships with athletes very difficult to regulate.
“I think they could just never follow through with how to enforce that,” he said. “It’s a free world who they work with—they haven’t let the skiers that do work with [Tchepalov] be part of the true Russian team, but obviously, that doesn’t…make sure those skiers don’t go to a championship.”
For its part, officials at FIS responded to an interview request on the subject of Tchepalov, and his work with Shiriaev, with an e-mailed statement.
“According to the information received by the Russian Ski Association, Mr. Tchepalov has been removed from any coaching function within the Russian Ski Association,” said FIS Anti-Doping Administrator Sarah Fussek. “Athletes that are not part of the National Team (and in some nations, even those that are part of the team structure), can chose the coach(es) they want to train with.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.