Seven years after the race of her life at the world track and field championships, Olive Loughnane is still waiting for her prize money.
That’s because the first woman across the finish line in the 20-kilometer walk in Berlin in 2009 wasn’t the Irish athlete. It was Russia’s Olga Kaniskina, who was later banned for doping but hasn’t returned the gold medal or the $30,000 in cash owed to Loughnane.
“I’ve three young children,” Loughnane said. “They will be going to college. It’s not an insignificant amount. I didn’t earn anywhere near the amount of money as an athlete that would allow me to retire.”
Athletes who are beaten by doped competitors aren’t only robbed of a moment on the top step of the podium as their national anthem plays, they can also be deprived of large sums of money. In the cases of four Russian and Belarusian dopers who have not paid back prize money from events where they were later disqualified, The Associated Press has found that as much as $410,000 may be owed to dozens of athletes, with some debts going back over a decade.
The problem is expected to intensify with the increase in retesting of medal winners’ samples years after the competition. About 100 athletes from various sports have had their results from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics annulled following new tests with improved techniques.
While the Olympics do not award prize money, doping disqualifications usually trigger backdated bans wiping out years of results and earnings from past world championships and other events.
In track and field, the problem is particularly serious because the sport’s world governing body, the IAAF, insists it can only redistribute prize money if the athlete banned for doping pays it back first. However, the IAAF’s main weapon to compel dopers to pay back the money is an extension of their bans, which isn’t effective if the athletes plan to retire or have been banned for life.
In response to questions from the AP, the IAAF would not confirm how many doped athletes owe prize money or how much is owed in total, or how it tries to recover the cash. However, it said the issue was on the agenda as part of reform talks set for the IAAF congress this week in Monaco.
“We are already consulting the athletes commission and other members of the IAAF family on a viable system that would satisfy all parties. We are confident that the changes and proposals we are compiling will be reflected in the next IAAF Competition Rules,” the IAAF said in a statement.
Seven years after her race against Kaniskina in Berlin, the long-since-retired Loughnane now compiles crime statistics for the Irish government. Meanwhile, Kaniskina is working as a sports official and may decide that, at the age of 31, it’s not worth paying back her winnings in order to race again, Russia’s top walking coach told Russian media this month. Kaniskina earned around $135,000 in prize money at events where she was later disqualified.
“She hasn’t definitely ended her career. She’s still thinking,” coach Nikolai Lukashkin told the R-Sport agency, adding that was also the case with another top Russian walker, Sergei Kirdyapkin, who is supposed to pay back a total of at least $90,000 from numerous wins at major competitions after he was banned in 2015.
Former senior IAAF leaders have been accused of colluding with Russian officials to cover up doping or slow down cases, including those involving Kaniskina and Kirdyapkin. The IAAF banned its former treasurer and anti-doping head in January, as well as the son of former IAAF President Lamine Diack.
Citing those findings, some athletes argue the IAAF should make a one-time payment to clear prize money debts as a gesture of goodwill.
“This is not only about doping abuse in Russia, this is about corruption in the IAAF,” said Trond Nymark of Norway, who finished second to Kirdyapkin at the 2009 world championships but was later upgraded to gold. “Of course, it’ll cost them, but if you think in marketing value, it would probably pay off.”
Denmark’s Joachim Olsen told the AP he was still owed $10,000 from the 2006 world indoor championships, when he originally won bronze in shot put but was upgraded to silver when Andrei Mikhnevich of Belarus failed a retest. However, Mikhnevich is banned for life for two doping offenses, so has nothing to gain from paying back over $100,000 in prize money.
Like race walking, Olsen’s event rarely attracts big endorsements, making prize money all the more important.
“That’s a lot of money. Prize money was something that I would save up. You could have a bad year, injuries and stuff, so I used it as a kind of a backup. You didn’t make a lot of money, so I lived in a small apartment and tried to save up,” said Olsen, who since retirement in 2009 has become a member of the Danish parliament and is sharply critical of the IAAF’s approach.
“For the individual athlete that got cheated out of a medal and prize money, their concern doesn’t seem that big. It’s more of an image thing for the IAAF and not a concern for the individual athlete that got cheated out of both a medal and prize money, and that’s a real shame,” he said.
Others are considering a lawsuit.
As well as a gold medal from the 2012 London Olympics, Tunisian 3,000-meter steeplechase runner Habiba Ghribi, is owed at least $38,000 from events in which she was beaten by Russia’s Yulia Zaripova, who was later banned for doping and disqualified.
“I took (the news) with a feeling of joy, because these titles are now in my legacy for life, but also with frustration at having been deprived of the opportunity to climb the highest stand on the podium, and to hear the national anthem of my country,” Ghribi told the AP.
Ghribi is threatening legal action to get the money, but isn’t certain where to file a lawsuit – against the Monaco-based IAAF, against Zaripova in Russia or against the organizers of meets held in Switzerland, Sweden and South Korea. The many jurisdictions, combined with a lack of legal precedent, present a stern challenge to athletes who want the prize money they are owed. The long time periods involved also mean some drug cheats have already spent their winnings.
“First of all you’re trying to figure out where to file a legal action and then you’re trying to figure out how to enforce it across multiple jurisdictions,” sports lawyer David W. Larkin told the AP. “The whole thing is an absolute nightmare.”
While few athletes are eager to pick a legal fight with their sport’s governing body, one strategy could be to pursue the IAAF for negligently failing to bar doped athletes from competing.
If the IAAF did recover prize money through the courts, its rules allow it to subtract its legal costs from the sum that would be passed on to the rightful medalists.
Ten years after losing out on a silver medal to Belarusian drug cheat Mikhnevich, Olsen isn’t expecting to be paid any time soon. He says the IAAF is letting clean athletes down.
“Even if I had won the lottery, and I had plenty of money, which I didn’t, it’s more of a principle,” he said. “They should pay the money to those that actually won it.”