Russian athletes fight back against doping, state control

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MOSCOW (AP) — A group of Russian track and field athletes want to beat dopers with science and show that their country can win cleanly.

Formed in the shadow of Russia's doping scandals, the Rocket Science Project is hoping to encourage whistleblowers and create an independent training camp with a strict no-drugs policy.

The group says ignorance and greed have driven Russian athletes to use drugs for years as a short cut to success, justifying it with the belief everyone else does it too.

"It's stupid to deny that we have big problems with doping in our country. As a consequence of that, sports technology, science and knowledge are probably 20 years behind the modern world level," says Evgeny Pishchalov, the slightly built distance runner-turned-coach who leads the project. "If our system doesn't restructure, we're at risk of ending up without any Olympic medals in the coming years. We've been left with no choice — change or die."

Rocket Science has already launched a hotline for doping whistleblowers, and is working to set up the training camp. Members will have to pay a $25,000 fine if they ever test positive.

The group wants to stay independent of Russian institutions and sports officials accused of overseeing widespread doping. Sergei Litvinov, a top hammer thrower, says Rocket Science will accept limited cooperation but "as soon as we feel any kind of pressure, we'd rather shut it all down."

Russia's ban from international track and field in 2015 for widespread drug use sparked anger from Russian athletes who felt the sanction wasn't fair.

As denials dominated social media debates among Russian athletes and coaches, a minority argued for reforms and a doping crackdown, and said Russia shouldn't be proud of drug cheats' medals. That sowed the seeds for the Rocket Science Project, though convincing more Russian athletes to follow their lead is hard.

"We've got the mentality that all the others (in other countries) are gulping down banned substance and we do it a little less, so we're the good ones," says Vasily Permitin, a runner who's part of the project. "And if you believe everyone is taking it, reporting on them is seen as bad."

Russian history breeds hostility toward whistleblowers like Vitaly Stepanov and Yulia Stepanova, the husband-and-wife team whose testimony of mass drug use sparked the first inquiries into Russian doping in 2014.

Memories of Soviet-era repression mean informers are rarely welcome in Russia, but Rocket Science's supporters argue that if doping violators are called out by other Russians, it'll show the culture is changing. Using an anonymous service on a Russian social network, they've asked users to submit footage of coaches and athletes who continue working despite their bans, a persistent problem in Russia.

As well as catching cheats, they want to show that Russia's doping culture is changing. That's a key condition for Russia to be reinstated by track's world governing body, the IAAF.

The longer Russia's ban goes on, the harder it is for athletes to make a living without competing in lucrative competitions abroad.

"I know people who, as the situation has carried on and continued, they can't feed their families," marathon runner Stepan Kiselyov says. "They're forced to quit and go to work. There are quite a lot of athletes like that."

Rocket Science's athletes know little of state involvement in doping, a charge vehemently denied by the government. Instead they describe a system with cut-throat rivalries, every reason to dope and little interest in stopping cheats.

Yaroslav Rybakov, a former European high jump champion, says he felt uncomfortable as a clean athlete on the national team. He believes Russian officials deliberately avoided testing team members who used drugs, instead testing him repeatedly.

"They just told me: 'You've been picked once again,'" said Rybakov, who now plans to coach for Rocket Science. The competition was fiercest at the national championships, where a good finish guarantees state grants for the next year. "The stakes were very high," Rybakov said. "It was perhaps even harder or just as hard to win the Russian nationals while clean than the main competitions that season, like the world championships or Olympics."

Drug use starts in childhood for some athletes — even Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko has acknowledged coaches in Russia's vast network of sports schools often encourage youngsters to dope. Cash prizes at regional youth competitions incentivize doping, argues Permitin, adding that young talents often develop a "disgust for sport."

Rocket Science's athletes want to fund training with sponsorships, rather than government money. Most top Russian athletes have contracts with the regional governments and federations that often mean they aren't allowed to choose which competitions to enter. They can also make it hard to leave a coach whose methods are unsuitable — or illegal.

Rocket Science remains far from its dream of an independent, clean Russian athletics base. They've found a site in the provincial city of Yoshkar-Ola, but must recruit more coaches and raise funds. They hope companies will rush to be linked with fresh faces in the tainted world of Russian track.

Instead of doping, chief Rocket Science coach Pishchalov plans to help athletes with sophisticated data analysis, movie-style motion capture technology and even electrical stimulation of the brain. The Russian Olympic Committee already has an "innovation center" packed with modern training and analysis equipment, but he says it's underused because many coaches lack the right knowledge.

Rocket Science has moral support from top Russian track officials keen to show Russia's drug culture is changing, but its members say they will resist any attempts to manipulate their work.

For hammer thrower Litninov, reforms are overdue. If they help him compete at a fifth career world championships later this year, so much the better.

"The situation was probably terrible for ages, but now a lot of people are recognizing it," he says. "We need to get together and change it."

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