Upon receipt of an ultimatum from the brave International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) due to tenuous progress in handling doping issues, the Russians are biting their nails – they either "get it together" or get disqualified. This example should steer the rest of the world clear of even the mere thought of engaging in "unclean" sport. Eimantas Skrabulis, the President of the Athletics Federation of Lithuania (AFL), upholds the same view, openly calling the Russians with their "soiled hands" thieves, who stole from Lithuanians not only medals, but also money.
"They came from Russia and told everyone how great they are and how well they work. Whereas in reality, they are nothing but thieves. For many years they have been stealing victories, better results and medals from our athletes. They walked away with the money of our federation, because our athletes ended up with lower results; they stole from me and my family, because I was forced to find money to help the federation and sport," said Skrabulis with obvious bitterness.
While the Russians are still denying this fact, tests have revealed a large-scale corrupted national system protecting the best athletes from disclosure of violations. "Only honest people and simpletons say that there was no doping system patronised by the state, however, for many, these things are indigestible. They used illegal substances as much as needed to. This problem has effused all of Russia to the degree where solving it proves to be very difficult, even in the presence of good will and availability of the right people," contemplated the head of AFL.
The disqualification of the All-Russia Athletic Federation continues since 2015, and just recently, during the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, the IAAF Council extended it, as it considered the "sobering up" progress to be too inefficient.
The Russian athletes, who are forced to continue competing under a neutral flag, receive many emotionally difficult questions, such as "how do they feel?" or "what is their reaction?" both from their own and other media sources. Furthermore, Sebastian Coe, the IAAF President, firmly stated that if the requirements are not fulfilled before the following meeting in July, it will be considered to withdraw Russia's membership in the International Federation altogether. In this case, the athletes from Russia would be banned from competing even under a neutral flag.
This ultimatum made Russia's hair stand on end – following the Winter Olympics 2018, the International Olympic Committee returned the flag and emblem, and it is expecting the Russian athletes at the Olympic Games 2020 in Tokyo, whereas the IAAF is doing everything to make sure they do not make it there. Lord Coe, the 61-year-old British politician and a former middle-distance runner, who won the 1500 metres gold medal at the Olympic Games in 1980 and 1984, has become Russia's enemy No 1, but one with a spine.
"Thank God that it was Seb who was elected the IAAF President, and not my friend Sergey Bubka. To be honest, I believe the latter would have no chance of tackling this situation," stated Skrabulis.
According to him, it would be unfair to say that Russia has undertaken nothing to improve the situation: "There are plenty of people who want to eradicate the doping problem, but it must start at the roots, from the youth sports. The best example is the championship in Irkutsk, where half of the athletes bailed as soon as they found out that RUSADA (Russian Anti-Doping Agency) is on their way."
Unable to stay impartial in this dragged out situation, Marija Lasickienė, a star of Russian athletics and the two-time world champion in high jump, published an open letter. "I am surprised at the reaction of our federation. When the responsible leader of the federation, Aleksandr Parkin says that such IAAF ultimatum must have been the result of our successful performance in Birmingham, there is nothing left to go, but grab one's head in complete shock," wrote the Russian sports star, a winner of 38 consecutive championships, who married Vladas Lasickas, a Russian journalist of Lithuanian origin, just last year.
"If the IAAF took this decision, it means there were good reasons for it. We should also pay attention to what the scientists are telling us – if an athlete, who used doping, was not caught, this does not mean that this athlete will stand on the marks under equal conditions with the rest, as the positive effect of doping persists event after its use has been discontinued. Therefore, it is important to prolong the ban for the "soiled" athletes as long as possible," explained Skrabulis.
The head of the AFL stated that nobody has any prejudice against Russia, all the sanctions are directed towards the system and the federation, which has been involved in criminal activities for many years, and now needs to find a way into transformation. "In this situation, Russians can ask only one correct question – why only us? This is where they will be right. This problem concerns more than just Russia. There are more countries where this problem exists than where it does not. The current relationship between the world and Russia is a message to the rest of the world. This is unacceptable and there will be no place for such thing. If you do not handle your problems, the punishment will be harsh," added Skrabulis.
– To what extent and in which other counties in the world does the systematic doping exist?
– How many medals did Jamaica win in last year's championship? Not many. Is it not suspicious? Logic exists everywhere. For many years, Jamaica had been scooping all the medals, whereas in London, only a few representatives of the team made it to the finals. There was something wrong or something going on there. Possibly, more stringent control. They should send more inspectors to the Caribbean countries. I will allow myself to say that all African and many Asian countries need to be under a tighter control. We also have some isolated cases, however, there is nothing worse than an entire doping system and state interference.
To be honest, aside from the fight with Russia, we do not see any other anti-doping measures or increased control being implemented. Do not forget that the sports officials are also the sports politicians, and they have no intentions of shooting themselves in the leg. They must solve this problem. I am sure that it is being address and handled as we speak, only it cannot be done in a day.
Today's generation of Lithuanian athletes will have to compete in the world under unequal conditions for many years to come and will continue to be discriminated. But I also believe that in 7 to 8 years the situation will balance out. We do not fantasise about medals. But we do think about finals. For a country like ours it would be amazing. Uneven fights with "unclean" athletes are the main reason why at least for four decades the Lithuanian track and field athletes had difficulties returning home with medals. The lack of facilities and money was not the main issue. Yes, our facilities are simple, so we go abroad, when we need money – we make sure we find it, and when our trainers retire – we bring in the younger ones. The main issue was that our athletes had to compete under unfair conditions, or, as I say it, they were jumping from the wrong spots, had to throw a heavier tool or would fall behind during races.
– The Russians are laughing seeing how controversial and even contradicting the decisions of the IAAF and the IOC are. The IAAF extended the disqualification of the All-Russia Athletic Federation, whereas after the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, the IOC returned the flag and emblem to Russians. What is wrong here?
– This is sports politics. I am a supporter of the IAAF policies, they are more stringent, while the policy of the IOC is more diplomatic and bureaucratic. Do you recall how the medal of Austra Skujytė was snatched at the London Olympics (because of the use of doping, the Russian athlete Tatjana Černova and the Ukrainian athlete Liudmila Josipenka were disqualified and their results wiped out, which allowed Skujytė to leap two positions higher and win the bronze, Ed.) and what was then the mood of the Lithuanians? It can and does change entire lives.
In the IAAF protocols, Austra is justly recognised the Olympic medallist. What the hell stopped the IOC from awarding that medal? How long should we wait for? Until she is an old grandma? This demonstrates how the IOC reacts to what should have been resolved. I see a problem there and don't enjoy a lot of things happening there, and I have the right to speak up about it. I am not going to close my eyes to the fact that someone in our family was robbed and continues to be discriminated – has not been officially recognised and left without a medal. How should we even perceive this? It's more than crystal clear. Not to mention the things that concern the larger states, where sports values are all the way at the bottom of the priority list.
– You mentioned the winds of change moving through the federation with the election of Mr Coe, the new president of the IAAF. One of the initiatives is focused on solving the doping issue. Which other novelties are being implemented and what can be relevant for Lithuania?
– What is relevant for Lithuania is something I call the kingdom of crooked mirrors. Theft through doping also continues. Another important question is sports without borders and movement of athletes across countries. Yesterday – a Jamaican, tomorrow – a Turk. I agree, we cannot restrict the rights of people, but we also cannot allow discrimination of the athletes who were born and train in their own country. A young man is working hard, dreaming of becoming the country's champion, but the state buys an already "fully made" man, nurtured in another country for a bite of bread, so this guy loses his motivation and could even become broken down.
There are many similar examples. The epidemic of transfers has already been stopped, and the short naturalisation period is no longer valid. Of course, it cannot be forbidden altogether. If an athlete is a fast runner, why can't he do it in another country? But when it is done only to represent another country, then there is no point in raising a flag and singing the national anthem. At the European Championship in Amsterdam, it was frustrating to see that more than half of the medals awarded to the Turkish delegation were won by athletes with no Turkish origin. The problem of naturalisation is being addressed.
The next step is the attractiveness of the championships. I am not sure whether for a small country as ours it is good, because the high standards result in limitations. Our athletes ask: what are we training for? Is it to make it only to the Lithuanian championship or to compete at the European and world championships, and at the Olympic Games? This does not mean that they are bad athletes. It means that the requirements are of a different level. It is related to the fact that the organisers are narrowing down and curtailing the competitions, making them more attractive for television and advertising. We are happy to be able to bring 18 athletes to the Olympics, which is a good number. There are about 30 Lithuanian track and field athletes that can compete on the European level, and we want to preserve this position. But tightening the conditions even more... Now they might have to run 100 m in 10.07 seconds in order to qualify for the world championship. It is not impossible, but just keep in mind that our summers are only 3 months long. The Caribbean athletes have 6 months, which means more possibilities, better tracks and everything else related.
– This year, our track and field athletes are expected at the European Championship in Berlin. Don't the golden medal of Andrius Gudžius and other medals won at the World Championship last year produce both expectations and a certain degree of pressure?
– The bar was definitely raised high last year, both at the European Championship and during the separate age group competitions. Thus, I am hopeful that this year's results are at least as good. We get off the mark in Berlin, at the renovated historical Olympic stadium, where the competition will be somewhat less fierce. Whether the team will be comprised of 35 or 20 people, is only our concern, i.e. the federation and trainers. Lithuania will be mainly focusing on those who compete in the finals and on the medals. The primary goal is that the athletes who demonstrated excellent results last year are fit to compete again. If they are, the European Championship could be very successful for our delegation. There is one condition though – all healthy and fit, and all together in one team.