Vitaly and Yulia Stepanov, the husband-and-wife duo who were instrumental in exposing Russia’s state-run, Olympic-level doping program, spoke about their fight against doping in sport to a crowded Noble Hall on Tuesday.
Vitaly is a former employee of the Russia Anti-Doping Agency, he said. When working for the agency, he witnessed how anti-doping officials facilitated and covered up doping practices among athletes, he said.
Officials at RUSADA were offered additional pay to help athletes get away with doping, he said.
Vitaly learned more about doping in Russia when he met his future wife Yulia, a track-and-field athlete who was ranked third in the world in 2011, he said.
Yulia presented her experiences with taking illegal drugs at the recommendation her coaches, at times reading from a statement because she still is learning how to speak English, she said.
Yulia’s first time being injected with testosterone was when she was 21 years old, she said. The drug helped her improve her 800-meter time by five seconds, she said.
Later, she took Erythropoietin, commonly known as EPO, and improved her time by another five seconds, she said.
Despite connotations about doping in sport, it felt normalized to Yulia at the time, she said.
“When I used prohibited substances, I didn’t feel like I did something wrong because my coach and people around me told me ‘this is the way.’”
The drug usage has led to continued health problems for Yuliva, she said.
“Doctors said, if I stop training, iron can poison my body,” she said.
During the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, Vitaly approached the World Anti-Doping Agency about what he knew about doping in Russia, but the WADA official was dismissive, he said.
He kept sending evidence and information to WADA, but they did not take action immediately, he said.
The Stepanovs finally were approached by the journalist Hajo Seppelt, who featured them in a documentary, he said. The documentary aired in December 2014 and triggered WADA to investigate doping in Russia via an independent commission, he said.
In 2016, former director of the Moscow Anti-Doping Lab, Grigory Rodchenkov, came forward to expose Russia’s doping practices during the Sochi Games, Vitaly said.
The Stepanovas were key figures in beginning to the conversation around doping in Russia, which culminated in Russian athletes being banned from the Rio Games and the Russian Olympic Committee being banned from the Pyeongchang Games.
The Russian Olympic Committee has since been reinstated by the International Olympic Committee, according to the New York Times. The Russian Track and Field team is still suspended from international competition, Vitaly said.
Despite the world wide attention on doping in Russia, Vitaly said he does not believe that the culture has changed in Russia.
“The reality, unfortunately, I’m not seeing changes,” he said. “So far the Russian organizations are not really getting it.”
The Stepanovas have not returned to Russia for a number of years, because other anti-doping officials have had mysterious deaths, he said. They have also not kept in contact with their family, because they are portrayed by Russian media as whistleblowers in a negative light, he said.
Vitaly gave advice to athletes who are faced with doping in sport.
“If you just use common sense in general, and get evidence, provide evidence to the right structures, US Anti-Doping Agency, things will move,” he said. “Short answer: fight it, fight it.”