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'How in God’s name did they get married?' - The cheating athlete and the anti-doping zealot who blew the whistle on Russia

David Walsh talks to The42 about his new book, The Russian Affair.

Yuliya Stepanova competes under a neutral flag at the qualifying rounds of the 2016 European Championships.
Yuliya Stepanova competes under a neutral flag at the qualifying rounds of the 2016 European Championships.

VITALY STEPANOV IS floating away from a first date, ready for the hectic appraisal. 

On the one hand it’s good news – he has totally fallen for her. 

On the other, she has just told him everything he works for and everything he believes in is a lie. 

So, um, maybe we should do this again sometime? 

At the time, Vitaly was working with the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (Rusada), in a position lowly enough to retain his idealism, his innocence, and his zeal. But he’d just been out with Yuliya Rusanova, an 800-metre athlete of national renown and Olympic potential and she hit him with the words, “You really should just stop being an idiot.”

Not only was she doping, but everyone was doping. 

And Rusada? They weren’t there to thwart the doping. No, they were there to facilitate it. Sure, they were catching a few doping athletes, but they weren’t catching the ones who can win the major medals. For those athletes, Rusada could change the date of some awkwardly-timed tests, or make a few adverse findings go away. 

Rusada were, in a very literal sense, a piss-taking Potemkin village. 

Vitaly had a choice to make: does he ask Yuliya for a second date, or report her to the authorities? 

In the end, he did both. Within two months they were married and within five years, they fled to blow the whistle on Russia’s state-sponsored doping system. They live in exile in the United States now, while Russia appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport against a four-year ban from international competition. 

david-walsh David Walsh (file photo) Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Their story is the subject of a new book by David Walsh, titled The Russian Affair: The True Story of the Couple who Uncovered the Greatest Sporting Scandal. 

“People will assume it’s a doping thriller but it’s not, it’s a love story set against the backdrop of a doping thriller”, says David. 

He met Vitaly and Yuliya for the first time five years ago in Berlin, shortly after German television aired the documentary in which they made their charges against Russia. He agreed to help them tell their story, and quickly found there was even more to it than a pair of State-crossed lovers blow open a sporting scandal through love’s resilience. 

“I never knew that their relationship was anything other than two young people who fell in love and got married and became whistleblowers. That was what I thought, and I was perfectly happy to tell that story. But Vitaly is a really unusual man and Yuliya is a unique woman. Vitaly’s attitude was, ‘So, David, you’re the journalist. You want me to tell the truth about all those bad guys in Russia who organised the doping. But you don’t want to hear the truth about how difficult our marriage was. How it didn’t work. How we betrayed each other’.

“He betrayed Yuliya by informing on her to the World Anti-Doping Agency. He told them the minutiae of her doping. She betrayed him by having a relationship that existed before they got married with her coach, and it went on.

“That was incredibly hard for him. But it was incredibly hard for Yuliya as a doping athlete to be married to this zealot who wanted to clean up the world. You might ask, how in God’s name did they get married?

“That’s love, I suppose. He really did fall for her and she eventually came to realise that he was the one man she had in her life who was in it for the right reasons. But it took her a long time to realise that.” 

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They got married very quickly but the relationship was, in David’s words, “very complex and very difficult. I would say for two years it fit under the general heading of dysfunctional.” 

upi-20181031 Yuliya Stepanova speaks alongside Edwin Moses during a 2018 press conference on proposed reforms to the World Anti-Doping Agency. Source: UPI/PA Images

Yuliya was having an affair with her (married) coach when they first met, and continued it after she married Vitaly. He, meanwhile, included her in a 2010 email to Wada about the truth of what was happening in Russia. 

In 2012 they filed for divorce, and she told him of her infidelity. “I think if I stay with you I will always cheat on you.”

Then, early in 2013, the system stopped working for Yuliya. As she recovered from a thigh injury and became increasingly expendable, she was told she’d failed a test and was facing a two-year ban. Alone, she rang Vitaly, and he eventually agreed to meet her. He took her back, and together they blew the whistle. 

She wrote a letter of confession to Wada, which went ignored. They realised they needed more evidence, so Yuliya steered conversations with her coaches, her doctor and fellow athletes on to the topic of doping, and secretly recorded it all. These were handed over the German television, which broadcast them in 2014. 

Vitaly and Yuliya may not have reconnected had it not been for the Russian doping programme, but they would not have exposed the programme had they not reconnected. 

“Not a hope in hell”, says David. 

“Vitaly could be the greatest whistleblower there ever was but he needed evidence and he couldn’t get it. When Yuliya converted to the other side and said to Vitaly, ‘I’m ready to go with you on this’, they began secretly recording people. Vitaly couldn’t do that as he didn’t know these people. He couldn’t walk into the office of head national coach Alexey Melnikov and say, ‘Hi Alexy, I’d like to sit down and have a chat.’

They regarded Vitaly as this freak, this kind of square who wouldn’t accept we have a system in Russia for preparing athletes. He’s just a tiny cog in the wheel and is irrelevant, so he wouldn’t have got past the door. But his wife was an elite 800m runner, who had been in European finals, a World indoor final, and she was potentially a medalist at Rio 2016.

“So she can walk into their office and they’ll talk to her. But she walks in with her iPhone on record on video and she seduces them into talking about doping. Her evidence was the reason Russia came down.” 

David says Yuliya is the hero of the story, although acknowledges not everyone will read it that way. She hasn’t yet been able to read the book, still ashamed of some of her behaviour. 

But as David points out, the book isn’t just about having the strength to tell the truth on a state-led system of cheating and deception, but about telling the truth about yourself. 

“People know they were the whistleblowers but people knew nothing about their personal life. I wouldn’t say it’s easy to be a whistleblower, of course it’s not. But it’s one thing to tell the truth about other people’s wrongdoing. It’s another thing to tell the truth about your far-from-perfect relationship. 

“When have you read someone who would be regarded as a hero saying, ‘You know what? I was married and it was a nightmare. A nightmare for me and a nightmare for her.’ That’s what Vitaly and Yuliya have done here. They’ve opened themselves up to a scrutiny that I’m sure will be tough.” 

The Russian Affair is written by David Walsh, published by Simon & Schuster, and is available now. 

David Walsh was speaking to The42′s sportswriting podcast, Behind the Lines. A feature-length interview will be released in two parts from next Tuesday. To gain access, subscribe at members.the42.ie. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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