PYEONGCHANG (Reuters) – In four years US skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender has ridden an emotional roller coaster as intense as her sport, which involves hurtling down a steep, twisting tongue of ice, head first.
She missed out on a bronze medal at the 2014 Sochi Games by four hundredths of a second, then rejoiced last November when Olympic authorities stripped third-placegetter Elena Nikitina of her medal for doping. Uhlaender was next in line for the podium.
Then, three weeks ago, the Russian’s appeal was upheld and Uhlaender’s life-long dream of an Olympic medal vanished again.
It was a “gut punch”, she said.
“I spent the first two days in tears, then I was inspired again, then I’m in tears,” the four-time Olympian said at the Pyeongchang Winter Games, where she finished 13th.
“It’s a roller coaster. It was really hard to feel like I just had a moment to focus and be an athlete.”
The experience has been shared by several athletes at Pyeongchang, where Russians are competing as neutral athletes – a penalty imposed over allegations that the nation has run a systematic, drug-cheating programme for years.
Several Olympians, coaches and sports officials say the Olympic spirit is dampened and the credibility of the Olympic movement undermined by the emotional toll taken on athletes by the awarding, stripping and re-awarding of medals.
“My hope was that Russia’s doping system was killed totally,” said Latvian skeleton coach Dainis Dukurs, who coaches his sons Martins and Tomass.
“But it has not happened. They are playing some games… They’re allowed to take part, not allowed to take part. There’s doping, then no doping.”
After Russian skeleton racer Alexander Tretyakov was stripped of his Sochi gold medal last year, Martins Dukurs looked set to be promoted to first place while brother Tomass was next in line for bronze.
On the day Tretyakov was stripped, the brothers were training in Canada. Their father was awoken at night by phone calls from Latvia to congratulate him on their new medals.
The joy was short-lived.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) exonerated Tretyakov this month, so Martins Dukurs, a two-time Olympic silver medallist, is likely to end his career without his coveted gold.
In recent months, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has banned more than 40 Russian athletes from the Olympics for life and voided their Sochi results. Thirteen medals, including four golds, were stripped from Russians in the process.
But CAS later ruled there was insufficient evidence that 28 athletes were guilty of anti-doping violations at Sochi. It confirmed violations in 11 other cases, meaning that nine of the 13 medals have been restored to their original Russian winners.
The IOC is responsible for allocating, withdrawing or reallocating medals, a process that can take months or even years.
Tensions surrounding the presence of Russian athletes at Pyeongchang have simmered and were exacerbated this week by a doping case involving Russian curler Alexander Krushelnitsky, who won bronze with his wife.
“This is more than just about us, it’s about clean sport,” said Sam Edney, a Canadian luger who won silver in Pyeongchang but missed the podium in Sochi by one tenth of a second.
His team could have been upgraded to bronze at Sochi had CAS not cleared Russia’s Tatyana Ivanova and Albert Demchenko.
“And maybe that decision lit a bit of a fire in our bellies,” Edney added.
Cross-country skier Jean-Marc Gaillard’s team in the 4×10 km relay at Sochi were set to be upgraded but the CAS ruling is leaving them with a bronze.
“It would have been difficult had we been fourth, but we were third,” said Gaillard, whose team also took bronze at Pyeongchang. “We have a medal. It doesn’t really change anything whether it’s bronze or silver.”