Don’t try selling Jenny Meadows tarnished field of dreams

Doping records casts dark shadow of doubt over successful Russian athletes

Britain’s Jenny Meadows has run four of the five quickest 800m times in the world this season

Anyone who has woken up to an early spring sunrise over the ancient city of Prague must feel this great sense of wonder. Not only did the fragile skyline miraculously escape the destruction and ravages of both world wars, it deep down remains an awesome Gothic masterpiece in the face of all invading modernity.

After the political Prague Spring, of 1968, it briefly felt The Unbearable Lightness of Being, as Milan Kundera put in, in his novel set during that failed attempt at ending domination by the former Soviet Union. Now, cleared of the any Soviet hegemony since 1989, there is a sort of enduring magic about the place that has to be seen to be believed.

Anyway, some of that former Russian force is back in the city this weekend, or rather on the track, as part of the 33rd European Indoor Championships. Prague has always had a strong athletics tradition - and not just because Emil Zátopek, still considered among the greatest distance runners of all, spent much of his life here, before his death in 2000, his funeral staged at Prague's National Theatre.

These will be the best attended European Indoors in a long time, and a reminder that nothing beats live athletics in front of a knowledgeable athletics crowd. It helps when the Czechs have a wonderfully classy athlete like Pavel Maslek to cheer on, and if he doesn’t win the 400 metres final later today then for some people the Prague Spring of 1968 may feel mild by comparison.


The Russians, however, still dominate these indoors championships, comfortably topping the medal table at the last two editions, in Gothenburg in 2013, and Paris 2011. Indeed they won six gold medals in 2011, including gold and bronze in the women's 800 metres, where Yevgeniya Zinurova squeezed out Britain's Jenny Meadows for gold, with another Russian, Yuliya Rusanova, claiming bronze.

Except as everyone knows all that glitters in this sport is not necessarily gold anymore, and so it proved, 16 months after Paris, when Zinurova tested positive for drugs. In fairness to the European Athletics Federation they didn’t delay in promoting Meadows to gold, that case against the Russians helped by the fact the Rusanova, who had briefly promoted to silver, also tested positive.

Not that Meadows was over the moon about it all: coming into Prague, she has spoken about her enduring ill feelings towards Zinurova, that she has “no affinity” with that European Indoor gold medal, because it will never compare to the joy she would have got from winning on the day. Some people say medals like this are better late than never, although Meadows is not one of them. She reckons she’s been denied six or seven championship medals by Russian athletes either known or suspected of doping, not to mention some considerable prize money.

Meadows was also run out of the gold medal position two years ago, in Gothenburg, ending up fourth, with Nataliya Lupu from the Ukraine striking gold. Then guess what? Lupu also tested positive, after last year’s World Indoor Championships, yet was only given a nine-month ban, and with that back just in time to defend her title in Prague. Indeed Lupu just about squeezed through her qualifying heat here, going through as one of the fastest losers, in 2:02:18.

God knows what Meadows must be thinking of all this, although she can’t afford to be distracted now. At 33, the British athlete has run four of the five quickest times in the world this season (including the only sub-two minutes) and duly won her qualifying heat in 2:02.59. She’s struggled back from injury, and although cut from UK Athletics funding in 2012 (and earning no more, she says, than €500 this indoor season) she’s come to Prague in possible the shape of her life.

Now, for the mandatory House of Cards reference: not long into Season Three, currently showing even in Prague thanks to the wonders of Netflix - our fictional US president Frank Underwood invites Viktor Petrov, his Russian counterpart, to the White House, and after trying to broker some sort of Middle Eastern peace deal, realises the Russian priorities are elsewhere.

“The demands that President Petrov made is proof to me that peace is not a priority for him,” declares Mr President. “Peace should not have to be bought. Peace should be its own reward.”

Underwood may not actually believe that, although the same should hold true in the war on doping in sport. Because despite mounting evidence against Russian athletes (20 race walkers caught doping in recent months, plus the damning German TV documentary last December which claimed 99 per cent of their Olympic athletes were doping), they are back in Prague the usual force, including Yekaterina Poistogova, who won her 800m qualifying heat in 2:01.44, and looks a serious threat to those gold medal ambitions of Jenny Meadows.

Poistogova won the bronze medal at the London Olympics, and although she’s never been linked to doping, the Russian who won gold in London, Mariya Savinova, allegedly admitted to taking the steroid oxandrolone, as part of that German TV investigation. Savinova, by the way, also denied Meadows gold at the 2010 World Indoors in Doha.

What is certain is that Valentin Balakhnichev, the former head of the Russian Athletics Federation who resigned in the wake of the German TV revelations, offered a damning parting shot when claiming the only reason so many Russian athletes are testing positive is because they're being tested more. Like peace, trust in athletics should not have to be bought, by any more or less drug testing. Trust should be its own reward. Until Russian athletics has rebuilt some of that trust, before everything that is seen again can be believed, they have no place in this ancient city.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics