By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian high jumper Maria Lasitskene has taken the rare step of publicly criticising her country’s suspended athletics federation for what she says is a lack of progress toward reinstatement four years into a doping scandal.
Lasitskene is Russia’s only track and field athlete currently holding a world title and is unbeaten internationally for more than a year. She is gearing up to defend her 2017 title — won as a neutral athlete — at the World Athletics Championships in Doha next month.
“The situation bothers me because I don’t see any movement,” Lasitskene told Reuters in an interview, adding that some officials at the federation had not shown “a desire to change.”
“It gives the impression that we are trying to hang on, that we will be cleared and then just go on like before. We need to understand that things have to change drastically.”
The 26-year-old, whose personal best of 2.06 metres is three centimetres off the world record, finds herself at the pinnacle of her sport at a time of turmoil in Russian athletics.
The country’s federation has been suspended since a 2015 World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report containing evidence of mass doping in the sport.
Russian authorities have denied their doping programme was state-sponsored but have accepted that senior officials were involved in providing banned substances to athletes, interfering with anti-doping procedures or covering up positive tests.
Efforts to have the federation reinstated have been hindered by reports of mismanagement and doping violations.
The IAAF, the international body governing athletics, extended Russia’s suspension in June and said a Reuters report that showed banned Russian coaches were still working with athletes would be investigated.
The IAAF Council will discuss the status of the federation on Sept. 23, just days before the start of the world championships.
Some Russians with no doping history, including Lasitskene, have been cleared to compete internationally as neutrals.
Lasitskene said she did not think the federation would be reinstated into world athletics in time for Doha.
“If there is still a white flag next to my name, then their reinstatement efforts are not good enough,” she said, referring to the flag appearing in competition results instead of the Russian tricolour.
In recent months Russian sports authorities have pressed for the federation’s reinstatement, creating working groups to spearhead the effort. This followed a call by the head of the country’s anti-doping agency for the federation’s leadership to step down.
Lasitskene she did not understand why only now there was a sense of urgency to institute reforms four years into the scandal.
“Cleaning up your own house would help, to put order in the federation, the national team,” she said. “That should have been done long ago.”
In addition to banned coaches still working with athletes, the federation also faces a probe into allegations that some of its representatives forged documents in a doping case.
Lasitskene said resources invested into reinstatement efforts had shifted the federation’s focus away from the grassroots and that had hurt the sport in the country.
“Those who are currently at the federation cannot handle their main task: making athletics in Russia better,” she said, citing low attendance, infrequent broadcasts and a decline in interest in the sport.
The Russian athletics federation did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
“It is an awful situation, but it is in our power to change it,” Lasistkene said of the suspension.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)