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Russia wants to recapture the former glory of its championship female athletes but has been mired in controversy in recent years

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The face of Russia’s doping scandal: Mariya Savinova

By Colleen Curry on November 10, 2015

When news broke on Monday morning that the World Anti-Doping Agency had found widespread evidence of doping among Russian Olympians, one photo appeared next to nearly every headline. It was Russia’s star track and field runner, Mariya Savinova, who won the gold medal in the 800-meter event at the London 2012 Olympics, and is one of the best athletes Russia has produced during its recent re-emphasis on sports under President Vladmir Putin.

Savinova was accused of using performance-enhancing drugs throughout the London Olympics as part of a state-sponsored “sabotage” effort in which Russian athletes were doping and falsifying drug tests for inspectors. The WADA recommended a lifetime ban for Savinova from future competitions.

Savinova rose to fame in 2010, when she won her first world championship in the indoor 800-meter race, quickly followed by being awarded European Athlete of the Year and another world championship in 2011, and the gold medal in 2012. According to Runner’s World, Savinova won nine of 10 races in 2011 and ran a faster 800 than any European in nearly a decade.

In addition to being the highest profile athlete involved in the doping allegations, Savinova represents Russia’s recent recommitment to producing champion athletes at any cost and its long history of supporting female athletes, even though they have increasingly been faced with doping allegations.

In fact, the Soviet Union refused to participate in the Olympics until 1952 because of the ban on female athletes, according to Robert Edelman, professor of Russian history and the history of sport at the University of California, San Diego. When female events began to be added, Russia realized it could win more medals by sending talented female athletes because the West was so focused on male athletes. “There was an instrumental quality. It doesn’t represent women’s place in Russian society, but it was very useful,” he said.

And, he added, Russia’s image of powerful female athletes contradicted the West’s version of femininity at that time, which Edelman said was “like the Mad Men version of femininity” and gave Russians a sense of pride.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - AUGUST 15: (L-R) Marilyn Okoro of Great Britain, Mariya Savinova of Russia and Winny Chebet of Kenya compete in the Women's 800 metres heats during Day Six of the 14th IAAF World Athletics Championships Moscow 2013 at Luzhniki Stadium on August 15, 2013 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Marilyn Okoro of Great Britain, Mariya Savinova of Russia and Winny Chebet of Kenya in the Women’s 800 meters heats at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Moscow, 2013. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Despite an “immensely regressive, chauvinist masculine sentiment” in Russian culture, there is still a strong focus on female athletes, particularly the country’s tennis stars, including Maria Sharapova. But in recent years there has been a focus on female distance runners and cross country skiiers, even as their successes have been marred by doping allegations, which Edelman said could be because performance enhancing drugs affect female endurance athletes more obviously than others. “There’s been a preponderance of female athletes who have gotten caught,” he said.

Young girls with promising athletic potential are still recruited by talent scouts and private coaches throughout the country and are often enrolled in specialized sporting schools, which provide housing and coaching on the expectation that students will compete internationally and “earn their keep,” said Anton Fedyashin, executive director of American University’s Initiative for Russian Culture.

Runners like Sarinova likely enroll at a university-level Institute of Physical Culture, where they can take classes in subjects like kiniseology in addition to training and can earn degrees that allow them to coach after their careers end, Edelman said.

And for those that succeed, there has been an infusion of sponsorship money from private companies, oligarchs, and both the local and national government, he added.

The resurgence in Russia’s interest in producing champions serves a few purposes, Edelman and others said. For many, it is fueled by nostalgia and a desire to try and recapture some of the perceived glory of the Soviet era days. “Aside from the obvious things of national glory and all the rest, there’s a sense that this is one of the things the Soviet Union did well, and there is at the present moment and has been for the last 10 years this nostalgia for a time when things seemed to work,” Edelman said. “Emphasis on ‘seemed,’” he added.

But, successful Russian athletes are also being asked to serve an important role domestically as role models to engage the youth in sports, Fedyashin said. “Sports has really become a major concern for the Russian government, and for Putin’s government as a matter of fact, roughly over the past 10 years, and there’s a very simple reason for it,” he said. “The Kremlin sees the stimulation among youth in sports as a way to sort of wean the population from too much partying, which involves drinking and smoking in Russia.”

Whether doping allegations run counter to that aim, the experts weren’t sure.

Savinova will now be investigated by the International Olympic Committee, who will rule on whether she is banned from future competitions.