Elana Meyers Taylor and Steven Holcomb are dealing with the same problem. Both want to compete in this season’s world bobsled championships, since it this will probably be their final opportunities to do so before retirement. Except, for now, those races are scheduled to be in Russia.
“And I don’t see how it’s safe for any athlete,” Meyers Taylor said.
There’s plenty of drug testing at world championship meets, and put simply, the trust level among plenty bobsled and skeleton athletes that their samples would be secure in Russia is below minimal – especially after the second report issued by World Anti-Doping Agency investigator Richard McLaren on Friday showed systemic tampering with such tests. So some tricky decisions await.
Will athletes have to skip a world championships in Sochi out of fear that going there might make them susceptible to doctored tests – which Friday’s report showed the Russians are extremely capable of doing – that come back positive and leave them banned to compete at the 2018 Olympics? Or will the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation simply move worlds elsewhere?
“They’re running the doping control? That’s just dumb,” Holcomb said. “You’re telling me the biggest country in the world, that just cheated with the biggest doping plan in the world, and you’re going to take my urine sample and go test it? That’s insane. I’m not going to let you take that. They haven’t really come out and said what they’re going to do about that. I don’t know. Nobody knows.”
To be clear, athletes have been talking about their fears about racing in Russia for months. What came out on Friday only heightened concerns, especially after that report showed proof of how in-depth the practice of tainting samples has been.
A handful of athletes – including Britain’s Lizzy Yarnold, who won Olympic gold on the Sochi track in 2014 – have also talked about boycotting, though few national federations have openly suggested that as an option.
“I want to compete in a World Champs that’s drug free & safe for all. Russia, is not an option,” U.S. bobsledder Lauren Gibbs tweeted.
It is not a unanimous thought right now.
The Russian reaction to talk of moving the worlds is essentially this: The Americans fear losing on unfamiliar ice. When U.S. bobsledder Lolo Jones – an Winter Olympian in sliding, and a past Summer Olympian in hurdles – asked on her Facebook page about why worlds aren’t being moved from Russia, some of the first reactions she received suggested the Americans should be investigated as well.
U.S. officials are backing their athletes, and acknowledge their concerns are real.
“We can’t pretend like we haven’t had cyberattacks or we haven’t had privileged athlete information publicized,” USA Bobsled and Skeleton CEO Darrin Steele said. “Our athletes have been targeted and we can’t ignore that. Now how far that goes, I don’t know. But I’m not going to tell an athlete, ‘You’re being silly, nothing could happen to you.’
“Do I think the food’s going to be tampered with or samples going to be tampered with? I personally don’t because I think Russia’s got something to prove,” Steele added. “But I can’t guarantee anything. I’m not going to tell an athlete they need to go. We’ll respect the positions of those who opt out and those who compete.”
For now, it’s unclear if anyone will go, or anyone will skip the worlds. The athletes want answers, and right now have nothing but questions.
“If I had to decide today, would I go? Good question,” Meyers Taylor said. “I don’t think I’ve made a clear-cut decision yet, because I want to make the most informed decision I can and I’m still in the fact-finding stage. But if it comes down to it and I’m in a position where I’m not comfortable, I will definitely not go.”