The Russian High Jumper Everyone Should Root For

Note: Because a number of readers of this blog also follow Russian figure skating and rhythmic gymnastics, I think people will also enjoy the story of this Russian athlete as well. It is also a cautionary tale of a fate that Mustafina and Melnikova only narrowly avoided.

Olga Mostepanova

It’s a name every gymnastics fan either knows or ought to know. In a different world Mostepanova’s name would have been as recognizable as Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci. Few gymnasts ever had the stars align so perfectly and were so destined to be an Olympic superstar as Mostepanova was in 1984. But Mostepanova would never make it to an Olympic Games.

Mostepanova was arguably the greatest casualty of the 1984 boycott and perhaps all the other notable Olympic boycotts as well. Mostepanova’s mark of 12 perfect 10s at the 1984 Alternate Olympics (Nadia’s record was only seven) would became an inkling of what could have been. Mostepanova was not just the Olympic superstar that never was, but a chapter in Olympic history that has since been closed. A case study of what happens when politicians sidetrack the Olympics and something that should never be repeated again with future athletes. That was until Maria Lasitskene came along.

Maria Lasitskene is something of a poster child for the Russian doping scandal. No athlete has lost more than Lasitskene has and she is quickly becoming a modern day Mostepanova, if she hasn’t already.

This isn’t a story about how unfair the IOC, WADA, or the governing body of her sport (World Athletics) is being to Lasitskene. What makes Lasitskene so incredible is that she doesn’t see it that way either. Lasitskene’s gripe is entirely with Russian authorities, the ones she blames for ruining her Olympic career.

Maria winning “Athlete of the Year”

It is hard to trust Russian athletes in the sport of athletics (track and field), but Lasitskene is as close as you can get. As the doping scandal has progressed, Lasitskene’s name has appeared in article after article, giving her take on what she sees as a scandal caused entirely by the failure of Russian officials. Her rhetoric is fierce and so consistent that reading her words it becomes easy to believe she is one of the good ones. The Russian athlete who stayed clean in an environment where few were.

In a gesture of how much respect the rest of sport has for her athletic ability and reputation for being clean, in 2019 Lasitskene was voted “Athlete of the Year” by the European Athletic Association, which serves as the continental governing body in athletics (track and field).

Or perhaps her clean doping record speaks for itself. She has never failed a test or protocol. This in spite of her Russian teammates failing doping protocols and tests on a regular basis. Among them, the currently banned Anna Chicherova who won the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics and was the best high jumper in Russia before Lasitskene usurped her. En route to her first title, Lasitskene had beaten an athlete linked to doping in the process.

Meanwhile Russia’s top men’s high jumper Danil Lysenko is currently suspended. It was Lysenko who was at the center of the most recent Russian doping scandal leading to the decision to ban Russian symbols from the 2020 Olympics.

Lasitskene managed to do what few of her teammates have managed to do, including two of the most high profile high jumpers in Russia by consistently testing clean. With the 2020 Olympics approaching, Russia not only got exposed for its continued doping problems, but was caught engaging in organized cheating specifically in her sport. What this means is that just like 2016, in 2020 athletes in athletics (track and field) will be the most at risk for a blanket ban.

It is easy to understand Lasitskene’s frustrations. Whereas Aliya Mustafina and Angelina Melnikova were allowed to represent Russia at the 2016 Olympics, Lasitskene wasn’t as lucky. Athletics (track and field) was one of the few sports where Russian athletes were blanket banned from participation. Daria Klishina was ruled eligible for the Olympics the night before she was slated to compete because she trained (and was tested) in the United States. Again Lasitskene wasn’t as lucky.

How would Lasitskene have fared at the 2016 Olympics if she was allowed to compete? Well consider the following:

Lasitskene is undefeated in her event at the World Championship level starting with her first gold medal in 2015 and her most recent gold medal came at the 2019 World Championships. She is the first woman in the history of the high jump to have won the gold medal three times at the World Championships. Lasitskene currently holds the high jump title at the World Championships, Indoor World Championships, European Championships, Indoor European Championships, and Continental Cup.

Her event has been contested at the Olympics since 1928 and only once has an athlete won the high jump twice, Iolanda Balas of Romania did it in 1960 and 1964. Lasitskene was the defending gold medalist on the eve of the Olympics twice now, 2015 and 2019. And its uncertain if she ever will be able to attend the Olympics.

Like Mostepanova and the Alternate Olympics, Lasitskene has a result that can be used to claim she would have won the gold medal at the 2016 Olympics had she been allowed to attend. The Russian Cup was held 30 days before the 2016 Olympics. At the 2016 Russian Cup Lasitskene’s winning height was 2.00 meters. All of the medalists at the 2016 Olympics tried and failed to reach that height. The 2016 Olympic gold medal went to Ruth Beitia who won with a lower height. But you won’t see Lasitskene sulk over her lost Olympic medal.

“I didn’t watch any of Rio 2016. But I was happy for Ruth Beitia when she won. I respect her a lot.”

After being banned from international competition in 2016, Lasitskene was reinstated in 2017 and had no intention of dwelling on the past.

I don’t want to look back, because it’s impossible to change something there. That’s why I prefer to think about the future. I’m looking forward to the next couple of years. I’m sure they will be thrilling and fantastic.

Her dominance is staggering. The last time Lasitskene failed to medal was 2015. Since then she has won a medal in 87 straight competitions. Since her reinstatement Lasitskene has recorded a 97.3% win rate.

2016: 13 competitions, 10 gold, 2 silver, 1 bronze
2017: 25 competitions, 25 gold
2018: 26 competitions, 25 gold, 1 bronze
2019: 23 competitions, 22 gold, 1 silver

Yulia Levchenko (L) Maria Lasitskene (M) & Kamila Licwinko (R) at the 2017 World Championships. Maria is the only one without a flag.

All Lasitskene wanted was to put the past behind her, see her national program reformed, and simply get on with her career. But none of that would happen as Russian officials continued to sidestep doping rules.

Gymnastics fans know all too well the dangers athletes face when they criticize establishment sports administrators. Lasitskene is making enemies of everyone within her own national governing body, Olympic committee, and even within her national government. Doing that in the United States is a monumental undertaking. Doing that in Russia, a country with a terrible track record of targeting whistleblowers is a whole different league.

But Lasitskene doesn’t care. She has hammered Russian officials asking for administrative heads to lose their jobs, coaches to be removed, has advocated for a total house cleaning to trigger a complete culture reform, and has pointed out the hypocrisy of Russian officials. She has spoken out in June again in August and once more in November. On Tuesday she wrote an opinion piece.

Even Rachel Denhollander would admire her persistence, courage, and intelligence. Lasitskene’s intelligence might just be her greatest asset. In a country with high-octane propaganda propagating the myth that Russia is an innocent victim being bullied by the rest of the world, Lasitskene sees past it. And does so while being able to craft deep and thought provoking arguments against the officials that have let her down.

Lasitskene has become “collateral damage” and the “eggs that needed to be broken to make an omelet.” The hardship inflicted on her is the lesser of two evils to clean up her sport. Doping is evil as the horrific revelations of the East German scandal have shown. The human cost of state-sponsored doping makes “fair-play” look like a trivial concern in comparison.

Maria Lasitskene with Yulia Levchenko of Ukraine

Right now the high jump is experiencing a situation very similar to what happened with Mostepanova in 1984. One of the most talented athletes in the history of the high jump is finding herself struggling to get to the Olympics. The actions taken against Russia for its state-sponsored doping program have been a slap on the wrist despite being the highest form of punishment that could realistically have been handed out.

The irony here is that the “slap on the wrist” by stopping short of a blanket ban of Russian athletes was done to prevent a situation where a clean athlete was punished for the actions of others. That would have been seen as too cruel by the public. In the end that’s exactly what happened to Lasitskene in 2016.

Despite the lame punishment, Russian officials still act as if they are the victims. Alisher Usmanov is one of the most influential figures in the Russian Olympic program. He is a man whose name fans of rhythmic gymnastics will instantly recognize. He called it a lynching.

Lasitskene is everything the ideal athlete should be. Athletically talented, intellectually gifted, courageous, morally sound, a role model. She has been the athlete that has lost the most in all of this. Yet she doesn’t ask for sympathy from others. In her opinion piece she only begrudgingly acknowledged that some will offer her sympathy, but followed it up with “I don’t need any of that.” Nor is she willing to compete for another country.

Maria Lasitskene is one of only a handful of clean athletes who got far more than a slap on the wrist. The hypocrisy of Lasitskene’s situation is that she was denied entry to the 2016 Olympics despite having a clean record while a Russian swimmer with a history of doping was allowed to compete at Rio and won two medals. Three years later she is reliving that painful experience all over again.

Despite all of that, Maria Lasitskene isn’t using the word “lynching” or blaming World Athletics, WADA, and the IOC. Instead she is blaming the Russian officials who got her into this mess and requesting that they simply do the right thing.


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