They won’t hear their anthem if they win. Their national colours – even on nail varnish – are strictly forbidden. Regardless, a group of Russian athletes is returning to the sport’s top table.
Almost two years after a blanket suspension for widespread doping, and a year after just one Russian was allowed to compete on the Olympic track in Rio de Janeiro, 19 will compete at the athletics world championships which begin in London tomorrow.
They’ll officially be “neutral athletes,” individuals not representing any country.
Sergei Shubenkov, who won the 110 metres hurdles at the 2015 world championships but had to sit out the Olympics last year because Russia was banned from international competition, said “I’ve got back almost all the rights I had.”
Decked out in an electric blue Russia tracksuit at his national championships last Friday, he lamented he still can’t “take this beautiful, awesome uniform to the worlds and flaunt it”.
Keen to head off any Russian celebrations, the International Association of Athletics Federations has issued its 19 neutrals with strict codes of conduct.
The Russian flag and national colours are banned, so kit in neutral colours must be approved by IAAF officials. Red, white and blue are forbidden, even on hairbands or bandages or accessories.
If the neutrals win, the IAAF’s anthem will play. Under the rules, an athlete who sings the Russian anthem faces a fine, though any legal tussles could prove embarrassing for the IAAF.
The rules “seem tough and a bit ridiculous,” said Shubenkov, who jokingly suggested there might be a loophole for fur hats. “Bringing a bear on a leash, would that count?”
The Russians will be in London when the IAAF holds a string of ceremonies re-awarding medals from past championships after doping cases. Some originally belonged to Russians, including Tatyana Chernova, who beat Britain’s Jessica Ennis-Hill to heptathlon gold at the 2011 championships but was later stripped of that medal and others.
The Russians certainly looked like a team as they met Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev last week at their national championships.
Their preparations are subsidised by the Russian state, while entry papers were submitted by the still-suspended national track federation, whose head coach Yuri Borzakovsky expects between five and seven podium finishes.
Besides Shubenkov, another medal contender is reigning world high jump champion Maria Lasitskene, who won every round of the Diamond League this season. She just wants to block out the whole doping controversy. “I don’t want to waste my emotions on that. I need them for the competition,” she said.
More than two years of investigations and bans have made the team stronger, says pole vaulter Anzhelika Sidorova. “Everyone who’s there will support the others,” she said. “We’re all friends like never before.”
There’s a return for Russia’s only track and field Olympian of 2016, long jumper Darya Klishina, while some younger athletes could be medal threats too.
Sergei Shirobokov, an 18-year-old racewalker, has promise but would be a controversial champion given his links to a training centre where more than 25 athletes have been banned for doping.
Still, it’s far from a full team.
Among the absentees are 2012 Olympic high jump champion Ivan Ukhov and former world indoor triple jump champion Lyukman Adams. Russian media reported both were refused neutral status by the IAAF.
Dozens more are serving bans, including former Olympic champions.
The IAAF is retesting samples from previous championships after World Anti-Doping Agency investigator Richard McLaren alleged a conspiracy of drug use and cover-ups stretching back years. An apparent cover-up of suspicious drug tests on the Russian track team before the 2014 world indoor championships is of particular interest.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted in March the previous anti-doping system “did not work,” there’s been no rush to investigate what exactly went wrong, at least not publicly.