Banned Russian official kicked off para course

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A member of the Russian Paralympic Committee banned from all Paralympic events in the wake of her country’s doping scandal was escorted off the course at the 2017 World Para-Nordic Skiing World Cup in Canmore.

Several coaches and spectators saw Irina Gromova give timing splits to skiers, raising alarm bells the team is still flaunting the rules a year after the International Paralympic Committee sanctioned them, and only days before the IPC rules on whether Russia can compete in the 2018 Winter Paralympics.

Even though Gromova was spotted recording video and giving splits, IPC technical director Len Apedaile said the official was not officially coaching, and technically was a spectator at the event.

“There was a member of the Russian Paralympic Committee (RPC) who was here as a spectator,” said Apedaile. “There were some questions because she was on course at some points. She is one of the long-term coaches with the team, so of course she is interested in the athletes. But she was not here in an official capacity. We reminded her if she was to be here, she had to stay neutral and out of the field of play.”

The IPC recorded Gromova’s activities and sent it to its headquarters Germany. She has been a fixture with the Russian team for years, where she worked with many of the athletes.

Cross Country Canada High Performance Director Mike Edwards said it was just another example of Russia’s insolence towards competition.

“Technically she was not allowed to be here. The IPC did not issue her a visa, so she got her own tourist visa,” Edwards said. “It was pushing the limits and to me it showed disrespect to the IPC.”

Gromova was quoted in Russian media complaining other athletes are now ignoring Russians.

“If we got along normally before, they now walk straight past us. It seems that, for them, it is victory at all costs and they are ready to step over honour, dignity and friendship,” Gromova said to TASS.

In Canmore, all athletes shook hands at award ceremonies, and were often spotted chatting after races, including Russians.

NPA (neutral para athlete) competitors dominated the Canmore event, winning 59 medals over two weeks (21 gold medals, 21 silver and 17 bronze). Igor Golubkov swept the men’s sit-ski events with six gold medals to lead the charge.

Russia was banned from competition on Aug. 7, 2016 after World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) investigations uncovered evidence of state-sponsored doping, which benefitted more than 1,000 athletes, including Russian para athletes, from the 2012, 2014 and 2016 Paralympics.

In Canmore, Russian Para-Nordic athletes were allowed to compete as part of a limited interim measure, allowing them the chance to qualify for the 2018 Winter Paralympics in PyeongChang, should their year-and-a-half suspension be lifted. NPA athletes could not display any national symbols on their red outfits, and no anthems were played at award ceremonies.

The IPC announced Tuesday (Dec. 19) they are upholding the Russian suspension, and will make a final decision on their Paralympic participation in late January.

“We recorded what we saw here and the IPC is going to be announcing their decision with regards to the state of the Russian Paralympic Committee next week,” said Apedaile, adding NPA athletes have co-operated with IPC officials. Through a translator, several Russian athletes expressed gratitude for the chance to race in Canmore.

“That side has gone very smoothly. The neutral Paralympic athlete team has been great to work with. They’ve been helpful and facilitative, and abided by the conditions the IPC has set down,” Apedaile said.

The IPC published reinstatement criteria on Nov. 2016 to provide a clear path for Russia to follow, which includes addressing the issues identified in the McLaren Report, bringing the Russian Anti-Doping Agency up to WADA standards, and enforcing suspensions and bans against athlete support personnel.

Russia continues to deny the existence of state-sponsored doping, despite a mountain of evidence unveiled in the McLaren report.

While the RPC reports it is moving toward reinstatement, politically, Russia continues to take a combative approach to the doping scandal, which has had ramifications in Canmore. Canadian Para-Nordic head coach Robin McKeever learned the RPC has singled him out, blaming him for their exclusion from numerous competitions.

“It’s a stressful thing for me, because I’m implicated by them in a letter that was written to all nations a year and half ago, for interfering with them being outside the IPC – It was written by their head coach. It’s interesting times,” McKeever said.

The Canadian coach said he welcomed NPA involvement in Canmore, even though it cost several of his athletes medals.

“The way I see it, it’s good that they’re here. We get to see what they’re made of. We get to see where they’re at. They are firing on all cylinders because they’ve got something to prove. They’ve come here to pound their chests and show they are the best. This is all about propaganda for sport mixed with politics. That’s what we’re dealing with,” McKeever said.

He wouldn’t speculate what the IPC will rule on Dec. 22.

“I have no clue what they will say. Basically, the IPC has put together a list of stuff they have to have followed, and the first two items on that list have not been met,” McKeever said.

Edwards was much more blunt.

“I don’t think they should have been here. I don’t agree with the IPC stance that they should be allowed to compete. But to look at the positives, we get to see where they are at. Depending what happens, that should give us confidence,” Edwards said.

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