The Russian Ski Federation has been the black sheep of the cross-country ski world over the past five years, with no fewer than 20 of its athletes receiving bans for doping rules violations between 2007 and 2010.
In June, former world champion and Olympic medalist Elena Vyalbe became the new president of the federation, as some firm rhetoric came down from on high in the country’s sport structure – one official said that Russia’s culture of doping must be eradicated with “scorching steel.”
Since Vyalbe took over, the ski federation’s record hasn’t been perfect – Nikolai Pankratov, a Russian cross-country
skier, was sanctioned in December for possession of intravenous equipment. But Pankratov wasn’t a part of the Russian squad, and under Vyalbe’s leadership, the federation has barred eight tarnished coaches from working with its national team.
We sat down with Vyalbe at the Russian hotel in Oslo to discuss her anti-doping work at the federation, and the other challenges she’s facing.
FasterSkier: First, how did you come to be the president of the Russian Ski Federation? What were you up to after your retirement?
Elena Vyalbe: I was elected by our delegates. I was one of the candidates for the elections. In the period after the sport, I was assistant of the governor of the Moscow region, and I had a daughter—nothing more to add.
FS: It seems like the Russian team’s performance were not the best—what do you think are the biggest challenges for your team going into Sochi?
EV: Of course, first of all, there were quite a lot of organizational problems. Maybe we have already solved part of these questions. And, how to solve the problem of making the athletes faster—we now have a very big team. We have different age groups—older, and middle, and juniors. And, of course, we are working the whole year, and we will select, from these groups, the best for the Olympic Games.
FS: In addition to these groups—it sounds like there were also some athletes that were working with the national team, but because they were working with some specific coaches, they had to make a choice to be off the national team? Can you talk about that?
EV: We have [flexibility] sometimes—it’s not obligatory that the athlete is preparing with the national team. We have, in some competitions, good results from the athletes, and then we invite the best from different regions, to try them during the World Cup competitions, and international events.
FS: We were also wondering, specifically, about Vasily Rochev and Sergey Shiriaev—because they wanted to keep training with Anatoly Chepalov, they had to make a decision to step away from the national team?
EV: Rochev was not qualified for the World Championships, according to his results—that’s why he’s not here. And concerning, Shiriaev, he is qualified, but he is not here now—he will arrive during the next few days.
FS: And Mr. Chepalov is not coming?
EV: He will not be here. And Shiriaev is only qualified for the 50 k distance, so that means he’ll arrive only a little before the competition.
FS: Some of the organizational problems you were referring to—I’m guessing that you were talking about doping? In this respect, we’re wondering if you feel that the changes you have made are sufficient, or if you’ll have to make more into the future?
EV: Of course, besides doping, we have quite a lot of work with our regions, where we have regional national teams, and then we have our national team of Russia. Of course, we pay the most attention to this team.
FS: We have also heard that there may be a race next year in the Red Square. Can you tell us about that?
EV: Now, it’s our dream, together with the race director of the International Ski Federation, Jurg Capol. This year, we were on the Red Square, in Moscow, and he saw the layout. If we have an understanding from the government of Moscow to get the permission to carry out the competitions, it will work out.
FS: We were talking with Capol, and he said that Vladimir Putin might be part of this effort—and that he would be coming here, to Oslo. Can you tell us how he’s involved?
EV: We heard the same information, about three weeks ago, but now, I don’t know, because I don’t have any direct contact to Mr. Putin, to call him and to ask him. But one of his vice prime ministers will be here tomorrow (Sunday).
FS: So, Mr. Putin might still be coming, but you don’t know?
EV: We are very small people to know such big questions.
FS: And is it true that he is working with you to help make this Red Square race happen?
EV: I think that it’s only this special service, bodyguard service, that will decide—because it’s a special place, connected to the president.
FS: With Mr. Putin obviously paying attention to the sport, and the Russian people following it very closely, it seems like there must be a lot of pressure, for you, in your job. Is that true?
EV: Of course, you are right that he pays lots of attention to sports. And, especially to winter sport, because we are preparing for the Sochi Games. He makes frequent conferences with presidents of the winter sports federations in Russia. For example, we had recently, in Krasna Polyana in Sochi, the first test event for alpine skiing, and both Mr. [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev and Mr. Putin were at these competitions.
FS: And lastly—we feel like we touched on the subject of doping in our prior questions, but perhaps not directly enough. We’re wondering: Do you feel like currently, do you feel like the team you have competing is clean? And do you feel like that’s a problem that is finished, or whether it’s something you’ll need to keep working on?
EV: I can be sure that the [athletes] that train inside of the national team is absolutely clean. But Russia is a very, very big country, and I can not make the same [guarantee] for everybody.
FS: So the skiers who are competing outside of the national team—the system where you have not given them any support, and forced them to qualify for international events based on their results—that seems like a big change. Is that the way you think will best combat this problem?
EV: In principle, we have a qualification system to the national team, and it has been almost the same for 10 years, and is valid all the time. We are working on this program—we are not intending to change this system in a very big way. We would like to have fewer changes in the team composition. It’s not good when they’re coming and going out—it’s good when they’re more or less stable in the team, and then competing in the team for a few years, then they can retire, or something, but not changing every year. That’s not good.
FS: And you feel like the athletes on the national team—you’re able to watch them very closely, and ensure that they’re clean?
EV: Yes, of course, we are now following all the athletes and controlling [testing] them, and coaches and athletes understand our situation now. I think that nobody is willing, now, to get into a bad situation.
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.