The Russian doping scandal was one of the great exposés of our time.
There were long-held beliefs that Russia was rife with corruption. Rumours circulated for years that they’d devised a doping programme designed for them to win on the world stage. Eventually, that system broke and on the eve of the 2016 Rio Olympics, they were banned from international athletics.
But what of the whistleblowers who exposed the Russian doping scandal?
As it turns out, not only is their story as compelling and, ultimately, as harrowing as the scandal itself but without them there wouldn’t be a scandal, to begin with.
Vitaly Stepanov worked with the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) as a doping-control officer. On a trip to the National Athletics Championships in 2009, he met his future-wife Yuliya Rusanova. A promising 800m runner, she had dreams of competing at London 2012.
Eventually, they went on a date, however, this was a first date like no other.
An ardent anti-doping officer, something rare in Russia, Vitaly spoke of his pride in keeping sport clean. Yuliya responded in kind by admitting that she was a doper. She went further, telling Vitaly that every Russian athlete was doping.
Despite all of this, it was love at first sight, two months later, the pair married.
However, the spark didn’t last and it was far from a harmonious marriage. After all, one person’s goals had a direct impact on their partners and vice-versa. Eventually, their whirlwind courtship turned into a vitriolic mess.
They lied to each other, they cheated on each other. Eventually, they grew to hate each other. Divorce was imminent, the papers were signed and the couple had one month to get their affairs in order.
Only, Yuliya had a ‘road to Damascus’ moment the day before the divorce was to be finalised. Her u-turn not only changed the course of her life, but it also saved her marriage and set the wheels in motion to take down the most corrupt system in sports.
Russian Doping Scandal
Award-winning journalist David Walsh, famous for uncovering the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, worked alongside the Stepanovs for five years. The fruits of their labour saw the couple’s story hit bookshelves in late July.
The Russian Affair: The True Story of the Couple who Uncovered the Greatest Sporting Scandal, tells the in-depth story of the Stepanovs. How an unlikely marriage turned ugly before a reconciliation resulted in reform.
To no surprise at all, the book is a riveting read from start to finish. However, pinning down the genre of this novel is difficult. It’s a true-crime story, combined with a spy thriller woven into a twisted love story. Intriguing right? This makes the book impossible for the reader to put down.
However, was that Walsh’s vision when he decided to put pen to paper?
“No, that just happened,” he tells Pundit Arena.
“I knew that when they met, Vitaly was working for the Russian Anti Doping Agency. I knew there was an elite 800-metres athlete and that she was doping and they kind of came together to fight doping as a couple.
“You would have guessed that there was a really interesting story there but the story becomes very interesting because Vitaly and Yuliya were prepared to discuss it, honestly. They didn’t try to sugarcoat it or mask it with banalities.
“They went into detail of how awful their relationship was for three years.”
Every story has a hero and a villain, however, there’s more to this story. While Yuliya was committed to doping and took her husband’s love for granted. Without her, there would be no story to tell.
So, does this make her the anti-hero?
“I didn’t put the word anti before hero in relation to Yuliya, I think of her as a hero.
“But I think she’s an anti-hero because she’s lived her life in a reckless and cavalier way and was so brutally tough on Vitaly.
“When their marriage wasn’t working she blamed him for everything. She told Vitaly he was ruining her life and that if they didn’t get divorced she’d continue to cheat on him. Her coaches and the people she worked with, they didn’t like Vitaly. They hated what he stood for and that made her life difficult.
“She was brutal with him, but he hung in there because he genuinely loved her. He had this belief that it might just work out in the end but of course, there was no logic to that.
“It’s not like true love found a way. I think certain circumstances meant that she was forced to review her life and when she reviewed it, she didn’t come out very well.
“People will say her conversion would never have happened if she hadn’t tested positive herself. I think that’s fair. As soon as running was taken away, she could see herself as she was, as a human being and from her point of view, it wasn’t very impressive the person she’d become. She didn’t feel good about that.
“She realised all the people who’d been her friends in athletics, they all used her and abused her. The one guy who hadn’t was her husband whose love she’d never properly reciprocated.”
Walsh adds that as a result of Yuliya’s honesty, she isn’t actually able to read the book.
“The book is quite difficult for her because she knows what’s in it. As a result, she can’t read the book because she feels ashamed of how she behaved in those years and it’s very painful for her to go back and to see that it’s all there in black and white.”
So why did Walsh have to write the inside story of the Russian doping scandal?
The acclaimed author admits it was admiration for the couple that made him want to put their story on paper.
Not only admiration in how these so-called ‘small-fish’ helped take down a global superpower but, in the case of Yuliya, how blowing the whistle on Russia meant blowing the whistle on herself.
“It was admiration for Vitaly and Yuliya. Whistleblowers have always appealed to me. I mean, I spent a lot of time on the Armstrong story, and it was like, you were dealing with a guy who really was cheating the system and it was very adversarial. This was very different because you were helping two people who were incredibly admirable in what they did.
“In some respects, what Yuliya did was as great an achievement as blowing the whistle on the Russian doping scandal. As great as that achievement was, it’s no more impressive than people blowing the whistle on themselves. If you’re going to tell your story, there’s no point in reserving your truth. That’s the attitude of the Stepanovs.”
Vitaly and Yuliya Stepanov are currently safe and well. They live in the United States where they are awaiting official asylum. Their marriage is now healthy and their world is currently occupied with raising their six-year-old son, Robert.