The five-times Olympic gold medallist Svetlana Romashina was in the pool when she received the news that Russia had been slapped with a four-year ban from major sporting events, including the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Even during practice, Romashina said, she and a teammate on Russia’s synchronised swimming national team spent Monday refreshing news feeds as they waited for the bombshell they knew was coming. Her first reaction was “shock”.
“We were hoping for the best, but we expected the worst,” Romashina said in an interview, calling the decision a “blow to the reputation of clean athletes”.
“I believe the punishment of clean athletes to be unacceptable,” she said. “We have not done anything wrong. We want to prove this and compete … but of course we can’t argue with Wada. Clearly there was a basis [for the punishment], but there’s still a question about the possibility for clean athletes to compete in the Games. We very much hope for that.”
After a five-minute break to digest the news, she said, “we got back to work”.
The ban is the latest consequence of a pervasive doping programme in Russian sport and ensuing attempts to hide it from the World Anti-Doping Agency. The revelations have cast a long shadow over Russia’s Olympic programme and elicited some of the harshest sanctions in the history of international sport.
Many Russian athletes say they have felt caught in the middle, calling the ban on the Russian team too harsh while also reserving strong words for a lack of effort from Russia’s sporting establishment.
“I’m not a sporting official but, from where I stand, obviously they could have done more and done it better,” Romashina said.
As Tokyo 2020 approaches, Romashina is one of hundreds of Russian athletes who can, at best, only realise their Olympic dream under a neutral banner rather than the flag of her country. But that decision will also require deep introspection, she said, pitting national feeling against camaraderie with her teammates.
“On the one hand as an Olympic champion for Russia, I could say I won’t go, that I’ll be a patriot to the end and not compete under a neutral flag,” she said. “But I don’t compete alone. I compete as a pair, as part of a team, and I don’t have the right to let down my teammates. It’s not right to them. And why should I refuse to compete under a neutral flag, when I and my teammates have done nothing wrong?”
Already, that question has evoked stark responses from athletes and politicians. Mariya Lesitskene, a high-jumper who has been outspoken on doping issues, blasted Russian sporting officials for leaving athletes “alone in their fight” and has vowed to compete. Meanwhile, a senior official in the Russian parliament has called on athletes not to participate, saying: “There’s no need to go [to Tokyo]; we should organise our own competitions.”
Russia has won gold in every Olympic synchronised swimming competition since 2000, and was considered a favourite to continue that run at Tokyo 2020. Romashina, who competes in both the duet and team routines, has stormed back into competition this year after taking a three-year hiatus from swimming to have a child, winning gold medals at the world championships in Gwangju, South Korea, in July.
“If we don’t go at all, and that is possible, then I will be far more hurt for the young athletes who would have been competing for the first time,” said Romashina. “I’ve been at the Olympic Games. I’ve seen it all and I have won. But for those who can’t go, it will be a particular blow to them.”