When Canadian Olympian Jesse Lumsden watched a newly released documentary that explores the recent Russian doping scandal, he became irate all over again.
“I couldn’t sleep. It made me sick to my stomach,” the bobsledder says.
Filmmaker Bryan Fogel’s Icarus revisits Russia’s state-sponsored doping program, brought to light more than a year ago when an investigation led by a Canadian law professor, Richard McLaren, confirmed evidence of widespread cheating by Russian athletes and officials that included members of the country’s government.
When McLaren’s report was first released, Lumsden had the same kind of visceral response that he did to the documentary. But he says, like many other people, he had forgotten just how bad the situation was and continues to be until seeing the film.
“Hopefully it creates a reminder of this happening and that nothing substantial has been done,” he says.
Lumsden, who is in Calgary preparing for the upcoming bobsleigh season and the Olympics, says he’s been talking to other athletes across Canada who are reacting the same way.
“Most of my conversations around this movie with them have been about… how mind-blowing it is,” he says. “And how they can’t even talk about it because we’re all so mad.”
‘The IOC copped out’
McLaren’s full report, released just days before the start of the 2016 Rio Olympics, shed even more light on the depth of the doping scandal in Russia. At the time, the World Anti-Doping Agency recommended banning the country’s athletes from Rio. But the International Olympic Committee stopped short of a blanket ban, instead letting each global sports federation decide which athletes should be allowed to compete.
Now, less than six months away from the Winter Olympics, Lumsden is renewing calls for a full Russian ban.
“That country should be banned from a number of Olympic quadrennials,” Lumsden says. “The IOC copped out. You’ve already proven this country had a state-wide system in place to win medals. That is a punishable offence and nothing has happened.”
According to McLaren’s 97-page report, which was commissioned by WADA, the lab at the Sochi Olympics “operated a unique sample swapping methodology” that allowed Russian athletes to avoid detection at the 2014 Winter Games, where the host country topped the medal table with 13 gold medals and 33 medals overall.
A decision on whether or not Russian athletes will be able to compete in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February 2018 has not yet been made by the IOC.
“We all want to believe people do things the right way, not the easy way, especially under the Olympic rings,” Lumsden says.
This is a pivotal moment for the Olympic movement when it comes to legitimacy and reputation,” he says.
“I’ve lost some faith in it,” he says. “I’m not going to stand here and believe in something when things like this happen. It’s not the whole story, though. I believe there are a lot of athletes out there who share our values and want to compete in clean sport.”
Weightlifter Christine Girard was awarded a gold medal after the two athletes who finished above her on the podium at the London Olympics tested positive for banned substances. (Francois Mori/Canadian Press)
Not as good as gold
If there’s one Canadian Olympian who knows the devastation of doping all too well, it’s weightlifter Christine Girard, who competed in the 2008 Beijing Games and the 2012 London Games.
In 2008 she placed fourth, just steps away from the podium. In 2012, she finally broke through and placed third.
Those results changed last summer. Girard found out she’d not only be upgraded to a bronze medal for her 2008 performance because of a positive test by the silver medallist, but also a gold for 2012 because of a pair of positive tests by the athletes above her on the podium.
Still, it’s not the same as winning the medal on the spot.
“All those four years leading up to London were really hard for me,” she says. “It shouldn’t have been that way.”
Had Girard been awarded the bronze in 2008, she would have been Canada’s first medallist in Beijing. She says it would have changed almost everything in her life — from sponsorship opportunities to publicity, she could have had a very different road. Instead, she remained virtually unknown.
“I had to train in an unheated carport,” she says. “How much opportunity that would have given me is hard to know, but it would have been so different.”
‘I don’t think they’ve learned their lesson’
Girard has just finished writing a book chronicling her difficult journey. It’s set to be released early next year. She says she feels sadness, frustration and anger when she thinks about what doping athletes did to her career.
“We knew doping was always there and wondered when they would get caught,” she says, pointing specifically to Russian athletes and evidence she says she saw that suggested they were doping.
“They had so many physical changes. Hairy. Big, deep voices… I was shocked to see how deep it was in the country.”
While it’s taken years for Girard to make peace with having her two Olympic performances greatly impacted by doping athletes, she also believes the IOC has a chance to get it right and ban Russia from the 2018 Games.
“There’s a lot of learning they have to do and I don’t think they’ve learned their lesson,” she says. “Until they can prove they can compete clean, I don’t think they should be there.
“If I can get there the clean way, so can you.”
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