ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA — Russia, and its flag, are officially barred from the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, a ruling that stems from continuing doping violations following a massive, state-sponsored scandal at the 2014 Games in Sochi that included cross-country skiers.
But other Russian cross-country skiers are still competing here, under the flag of their country’s Olympic committee.
And on Sunday, in their first race of the Games, Russian men took the top two places. Star Alexander Bolshunov was so far ahead that he slowed to wave a Russian Olympic Committee flag before the finish line, and still beat third-placed Iivo Niskanen of Finland by two minutes.
In spite of the huge winning margin, U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Matt Whitcomb said he wasn’t skeptical.
“We were all cheering for him in the coaching zone. And I don’t think all of us coaches, if we suspected any foul play, would be clapping for him,” Whitcomb said in an interview after the race. “I trust the World Anti-Doping Agency for helping keep the sport clean. I really do feel like overall, cross-country skiing is quite clean these days, compared to where we’ve come from.”
But other veteran American observers couldn’t watch Bolshunov and second-placed Denis Spitsov without asking questions. And the fact that Bolshunov will take home a gold medal when his country is still under international sanctions for doping-related offenses underscores the need for tougher penalties, critics said.
“I watched that race, and I was sad. Not because I’m 100% convinced that Bolshunov’s guilty, but because I watched it and I had a lot of doubt,” said Kris Freeman, a retired American cross-country skier who competed at the 2014 Games. “I’m angry at all the corrupt sporting bodies out there that let Russia come to these Games. They shouldn’t be there.”
Freeman’s comments came a few days before Russian media reported that a star women’s figure skater, Kamila Valieva, had tested positive for a banned drug before the Beijing Games started. A Kremlin spokesman said wait Wednesday said he was waiting for an explanation from the International Olympic Committee or Russian sports officials.
Another time, another team
Bolshunov is a decorated athlete who’s never failed a drug test. At a post-race news conference, asked by FasterSkier/the Daily News about the suspicions surrounding his performance, he emphatically rejected them.
Bolshunov said Russian athletes are under intense scrutiny, with drug testing “almost every day,” and have to constantly report their whereabouts to testing agencies.
“This should have nothing to do with sports. We have clean sportsmen, clean athletes here at the Olympics,” Bolshunov said, calling the question “irrelevant.” He added: “After you see how we train, I believe that you and your audience will never have these questions again.”
In a subsequent interview, Markus Cramer, a German coach who works for the Russians, said he’s “100% sure” there’s no doping on his team. He’s been affiliated with the team for seven years, and if doping was happening, he would have been able to tell.
“It’s totally another time now, and another team, and other athletes,” he said.
Reactions inside Russia, meanwhile, underscored how differently followers of the sport there viewed Bolshunov’s result. They also hinted at the ongoing geopolitical tensions between Russia and the U.S.
Russian politicians and sports commentators sharply dismissed any doubts, with one saying that the Anchorage Daily News/FasterSkier reporter who questioned Bolshunov was a “provocateur” and should have his Olympic press credential revoked.
“He could also ask what (Bolshunov) thinks about the alleged movements of military personnel,” sports journalist Dmitry Guberniev was quoted as saying, referring to the controversy about Russian troops massing near the Ukrainian border.
Scandinavian journalists at the post-race news conference said followers of cross-country skiing in those nations are less inclined to doubt the current generation of Russian athletes after growing more familiar with them.
The Russian team, in an effort to build trust after the Sochi scandal, invited Norwegian media to a training camp near Lillehammer a few years ago, Cramer said.
“Especially with the Norwegian media, we have a good contact,” he added. “And I think they understand, most of them.”
Cramer noted that no similar questions were lobbed at Norwegian superstar Therese Johaug, after she won the women’s opening cross-country event in similarly dominating fashion.
Johaug missed the 2018 Games while serving an 18-month ban for using an anabolic steroid, clostebol. She said she accidentally took it while trying to treat a sunburn with lip balm — which turned out to have a “doping” warning label on the package.
At a news conference Thursday after winning her second race of the Games, Johaug said she’d finished her ban and had been training “so hard, so much.”
“People can (say) what they want, but I don’t care,” she said. “I know who I am and what I’m doing.”
Questions of accountability
Bolshunov’s result Sunday did not surprise followers of the sport, even if the size of his winning margin made an impression.
The 25-year-old, who grew being up coached by his father in a town near the Ukrainian border, won four medals at the 2018 Games.
He’s also topped the overall rankings of the World Cup circuit — generally accepted as a barometer for the globe’s best all-around skier — for the past two winters. And he’s known to his peers for his work ethic and impeccable technique.
“The thing about Bolshunov is he’s a beautiful skier,” said Freeman, the retired American racer. “And I have no doubt that he works his ass off.”
One of the questions about Bolshunov’s performance is how much he should be held accountable for transgressions committed by others at a time when he was 17 years old.
Noah Hoffman, another retired American skier and anti-doping advocate, said he gives Bolshunov the benefit of the doubt.
“You can’t prove that you’re clean,” Hoffman said. “And so I refuse to assume that anybody is doping without evidence.”
On the other hand, Hoffman remains frustrated by the absence of stiffer penalties against the entire Russian team in the aftermath of the 2014 scandal.
“To the extent that a flag is making us question an athlete, that’s tragic,” he said. “And it’s because we haven’t put in place adequate deterrence to stop state-sponsored doping.”
A year ago, a European appeals court halved Russia’s four-year ban from global sports originally imposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, in a ruling blasted by some anti-doping advocates.
That proposed four-year penalty was not in direct response to the Sochi scheme. Instead, it was imposed after subsequent accusations by WADA that Russia had covered up positive tests in data that the nation was required to disclose in the wake of the 2014 scandal.
The result is that Russian athletes are still competing in Beijing — as they did at last year’s Games in Tokyo and in 2018 in Pyeonchang — even as Russian leaders can complain that they’re being unfairly targeted, said Hoffman.
“In both Pyeongchang and here in Beijing, they get to claim to be the victims of a Western plot while still celebrating the success of their athletes,” Hoffman said. “This is like everything Putin dreams of.”
A “big political game”
Bolshunov’s personal coach is Yuri Borodavko, who works with several other star Russian athletes.
In 2010, Russian Ski Federation leaders suspended Borodavko from working with the country’s national team for two years after Evgeny Dementiev, a skier he worked with, tested positive for blood-boosting drugs.
But Borodavko denied any wrongdoing, and he told the Associated Press in 2018 that Dementiev had been tricked into doping.
Today, Borodavko has a good reputation in Russia, and most fans see him and his athletes as “absolutely clean,” said Artem Kuznetsov, a journalist with the government-owned Russian news agency Tass.
Bolshunov and his teammates would be “crazy to try to cheat right now,” given the intense scrutiny on them, Kuznetsov added.
Freeman said he doesn’t lend too much credibility to Bolshunov’s history of negative tests: Lance Armstrong, he pointed out, never failed a drug test, either.
He said he was especially offended by the way Bolshunov celebrated Sunday’s win with the Russian Olympic Committee flag, and by his “defiant” response to the questions about him.
“I think he should be more aware of where his country is coming from — what they have been caught red-handed doing — and understand where the questions were coming from,” Freeman said. “Coming at it defiantly like that just makes you seem like a villain.”
Cramer, the Russian team coach, said Bolshunov is a young athlete who doesn’t understand why, given his clean personal record, he’s facing questions.
He also said Bolshunov has been criticized in the past for looking too serious when he crosses the finish line.
“What can he do?” Cramer said. He added: “We have a lot of (doping) controls. So, when he is not clean, of course, we will see.”
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.