By Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber
MOSCOW (Reuters) - The silver medals Russian sprinter Tatyana Firova won at the Beijing and London Olympics are stored in a safe in her apartment near Moscow in defiance of the International Olympic Committee, which has wanted them back for months.
Firova is one of six athletes who told Reuters they had yet to return Olympic medals and diplomas from the Beijing and London Games that were revoked over the last year after their samples, or those of relay teammates, tested positive for banned substances.
Two of these athletes said they had no intention of returning them, while three others said they would do so but were unclear how to proceed, had logistical constraints or were awaiting the outcome of an appeal. Another athlete was undecided.
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"I don't want to return my medals because I think no one would have deserved them more," said Firova, who was stripped of her Beijing silver medal in the 4x400-metre relay after banned substances, including the anabolic steroid turinabol, were found in her samples.
Russia's athletics federation told Reuters that three stripped Olympic medals and one diploma had been returned, and that several appeals were still being heard. In February, it said 23 medals needed to be handed back.
The federation is already suspended over a 2015 World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report that exposed systematic state-sponsored doping in Russian athletics. It remains unclear if not returning medals could lead to additional disciplinary measures or stop Russian athletes going to the Olympics.
It is also unclear whether the International Olympic Committee can compel athletes to return medals.
"They are not a police force," Olympic historian Bill Mallon said of the IOC.
"I think all they'll end up doing is reissuing the medals to the other people and saying, 'well, that person has a medal they don't deserve'."
The fact many medals have not been returned points to a broader issue with the culture of Russian sport.
While Russia has pledged to cooperate with global sports bodies over its anti-doping program, it has never acknowledged state support for doping. Many in Russian sport, from officials to athletes and coaches, do not believe there was wrongdoing, and say their country is being unfairly targeted.
In a report last week, an International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) task force monitoring reforms at the Russian federation said it had yet to demonstrate "that it has established a strong anti-doping culture within its sport, or that it has created an open environment that encourages whistleblowing".
The IOC did not respond to Reuters questions about what it could do if athletes refuse to return medals, saying it had already received a number of medals and was in contact with the relevant Olympic committees about the issue.
The Russian Olympic Committee, responsible for returning the medals to the IOC, did not reply to a request for comment.
The IAAF said Russia's athletics federation had yet to meet several reinstatement criteria, while WADA said Russian national anti-doping agency RUSADA still had to meet 12 conditions to regain accreditation.
The Russian athletics federation has warned athletes that their failure to return stripped medals could hinder its efforts to be reinstated in the IAAF, which has cleared dozens of Russians to compete internationally as neutral athletes.
A federation official attributed the resistance to the fact that many of these athletes no longer compete, meaning they cannot be punished by measures such as exclusion from the national team.
Firova, who also has to surrender her 4x400-metre relay silver medal from London after a teammate's samples were retested, said she was sentimentally attached to her Olympic hardware.
"It's the objective proof of my labor," she said.
In Firova's case for the Beijing Games, the IOC ruled that she "has the medal, the medalist pin and the diplomas obtained in the Women's 400m and the Women's 4x400m relay withdrawn, and is ordered to return these".
Firova said she has appealed the decision but the outcome of her case would have little impact on her actions.
"From the very start of all this, I made the decision not to give it back," she said of her Beijing silver, although she might be willing to return the medalist pin and diplomas.
Since Beijing and London, some Olympic medals and diplomas could have been sold, misplaced or lost, complicating Russia's efforts to have them returned.
"I don't know whether I've lost it or not, but I haven't seen it in a while," former decathlete Alexander Pogorelov, who was stripped of his Olympic diploma for a fourth-place finish in Beijing after turinabol was found in his samples, told Reuters.
"But even if I did find it, I probably wouldn't give it back because I think I earned it honestly," said Pogorelov, who now heads the sports committee of the city of Bryansk.
Some athletes said the Russian federation had not asked for the return of medals and diplomas, which its president denied.
"They are lying about the fact they weren't notified," athletics federation president Dmitry Shlyakhtin told Reuters, insisting it had contacted them by phone, e-mail and mail.
Sports minister Pavel Kolobkov downplayed the issue of medals not being promptly returned.
"Many athletes don't give back their medals, not only athletes in Russia," he told Reuters last month.
Organisers of other sports events have also faced obstacles in reclaiming medals or prize money from Russian dopers.
The London Marathon has been trying to reclaim money from Russia's Liliya Shobukhova, who won the 2010 title and was runner-up in 2011 before being banned for doping.
Shobukhova was sued in Britain and the marathon's organizers are now waiting for a hearing in Russia to have the judgement applied there.
"We will spend whatever money it takes to pursue her and get the money back, even if it makes no commercial sense," the race's chief executive Nick Bitel told Reuters this week.
Shobukhova declined to comment.
Veteran U.S. Olympic high jumper Chaunté Lowe is in line to receive bronze from Beijing, her first Olympic medal, after Russia's Anna Chicherova was stripped of it and the fourth and fifth place finishers were disqualified for doping.
But Chicherova has appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, saying she would only return her medal if her "guilt will be proven irrevocably".
"Obviously it would have been a great feeling to be able to go to the Olympics and experience having a ceremony," Lowe told Reuters. "A medal doesn't replace a ceremony."
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; additional reporting by Mitch Phillips in London; editing by Giles Elgood)