While the International Biathlon Union can offer no further information on the three positive doping tests it announced earlier this week, the Russian Biathlon Union confirmed that one of the positive tests belonged to Irina Starykh. Starykh was ranked sixth in the overall World Cup score and was bound for the Olympics as Russia’s top female biathlete.
The RBU published a letter that Starykh wrote to her federation:
“I got into a difficult situation and I think it is necessary to inform you of my decision to leave the team location for an indefinite period. I received a notice from the IBU which states that one of my samples gave a positive result. The news came as a big surprise to me. Believe me, I am truly sorry that this story is linked to my name.
“I immediately decided to go to the opening of the B sample, because I think everything that happened to me a misunderstanding. However, until the end of proceedings, I consider it unacceptable to be in [competition]. I understand that in the eyes of the public, I’ll throw a shadow on the team… I have neither the right nor the desire to expose the girls and the whole team. Please exclude me from the team until the end of proceedings and inform all the necessary organizations on my behalf. I wish our whole team the best of luck!”
Russian news site Championat is reporting that Galina Nechkasova will replace Starykh on the Olympic roster. Nechkasova competed today in the 15 k individual race at Open European Championships in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, where she placed fourth, 22 seconds behind Audrey Vaillancourt of Canada.
It is unclear how easily Russia will be able to make a substitution for an athlete who cannot participate because of a positive test.
However, coaches and others involved with Russian biathlon have begun to comment on the case.
Alexander Tikhonov, a four-time Olympic champion who was once the head of the Russian federation, said in an interview with Russian website Championat that he blamed in part the father-and-son doctors of the Dimitriev family for providing banned substances to athletes.
He alleged that the Dimitrievs has appeared in Hochfilzen, where World Cup races were held in December (and where Starykh earned a podium). Andrey Dimitriev was the team doctor when Iourieva tested positive for EPO in 2009, along with Dmitriy Yaroshenko and Albina Akhatova. He was fired after that incident, but reportedly re-hired by the biathlon federation in the leadup to Sochi. Back in 2009, Iourieva alleged in her arbitration hearing that he had given her the drug “Cardio-Protector” and told her that it did not contain any prohibited substances.
Tikhonov said that the athletes and federation should have known better than to allow doctors with such a reputation to come anywhere near the team.
“This season they used their services and for some reason hoped to have a legitiate outcome,” he alleged. “The Olympic Committee knew about their activities but never put on the brakes.”
But then, Tikhonov painted such doctors as almost predatory, and said that athletes might even unwittingly receive banned substances.
“I always tell athletes, if you accept any medication from a doctor, make them show you the packaging,” he said. “You have to take a picture of it, and then consult some independent expert to make sure that it is legal to take. Except for the athletes, nobody takes the responsibility of these things – neither the coaches nor the doctors. That’s why doping has such deep roots in our sport.”
Both Starykh and Iourieva train under Vladimir Korolkevich, who had recently been promoted to head coach of the Russian women’s team. The other half of the team train with Wolfgang Pichler, the German who had extensively criticized Russia’s doping culture before being hired by the program three years ago. Pichler gave a wide-ranging interview to the Zeit newspaper, in which he also discussed doping. None of his athletes were among those who allegedly testes positive.
“I demand to work with no doping,” Pichler said. “Three years ago there was the prospect of sanctions against the association because of the many positive doping tests. The contract awarded to me at the time was to build the team up again, and polish up the image… My athletes know how disastrous a positive test would be on the image of the Games, their homeland and especially on their own careers. Vladimir Putin wants no positive doping cases, so we have been inspected more frequently in recent weeks by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency and by the World Anti-Doping Agency.”
He also told Sportschau, a division of the German television broadcaster ARD, that he “was fighting for a clean Russian team… otherwise I would have quit [the job].”
Within the Russian federation, others claimed the same thing.
“Over the last six years the anti-doping work has been enormous,” Mikhail Porkhorov, the current head of the federation who also owns the NBA team the Brooklyn Nets, told Russian news site R-Sport. “We take ten times more samples than WADA. For us it is a manner of principle.”
He said that the federation would not comment on the situation until it had received and analyzed documents from the IBU.
Others still claim that the timing is something of a conspiracy.
“I believe that the international federation specifically made this announcement in order to bleed athletes from the Russian roster,” Eugeniy Redkine, himself an Olympic champion, told F-Sport. “But doping in the first place was a great folly. Everyone had to understand they hype surrounding the Russian Olympics… it would be better not to make the team, than to be so disgraced.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.