Yuliya Stepanova believed her coaches when they told her it was normal for athletes to take testosterone injections to boost their performance.
"I saw Russian champions, and they used dope," Stepanova told an audience inside the Champions Center at the University of Colorado on Tuesday night.
"They were heroes," she added. "I believed in the system."
Stepanova, and her husband Vitaly Stepanov, a former doping control officer with Rusada, the Russian anti-doping agency, are credited with blowing the whistle on a state-run doping scandal that left the Russian track team barred from last summer's Olympic Games. The Russian paralympic team was also barred from competing in the Paralympic Games.
The couple, who now live in the United States, made a surprise showing at Tuesday's discussion — "Foxes in the Henhouse: From the Russian Doping Scandal to Global Anti-Doping Reform" — given by Travis Tygart, the chief executive officer of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
The couple entered the room to a standing ovation, but the appearance was not advertised in advance, because the couple's decision to speak out was not met with widespread acclaim in their home country.
"They are all thanking Yulia because they didn't get to go to the Olympics," Stepanov joked. "Lot of people are blaming her for the paralympic teams getting banned."
Stepanov said, however, that he and his wife decided to come forward because doping in sports is considered a "grey" area by too many, when in reality, it isn't.
"Lance Armstrong talks about it being a grey area when he has been cheating his entire career," Stepanov said. "Don't cheat. It's black and white. You are setting a bad example."
Stepanov added that when he tried to bring his concerns to Russian officials, he was basically told. "We decide who are heroes, and we decide who are cheaters in Russia."
Stepanova was suspended from competing as a mid-distance runner in 2013 after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. She eventually recorded an incriminating conversation with a Russian sports official, a move that eventually broke the Russian doping scandal.
She said on Tuesday night that she is continuing to train in hopes of rejoining the competitive running world (she was not allowed to compete in 2016, in spite of her assistance to authorities).
Tygart, who delivered the CU Center for Sports Governance's Distinguished Lecture, said that athletes — although they always have a choice whether or not to accept drugs — are often pawns, especially in the case of a widespread, government-run doping program like the one seen in Russia.
He said on Tuesday that although there will always be people who cheat, there is no evidence of any cheating on a scale of the program discovered in Russia.
He added that it in order for doping to be successfully combated, outfits like the World Anti-Doping Agency — which monitors doping in international-level sports — must remove sports organizations from its governance, because sports organizations don't always respond well when scandal erupts.
"If athletes can't have hope and belief that they can win by playing by the rules, then we should throw out the rules," he said. "I don't think that is an acceptable outcome."
John Bear: 303-473-1355, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/jonbearwithme
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