By Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Sergey Shubenkov arrived home in his native Russia on Wednesday night to a noisy reception from jubilant supporters after becoming the first Russian neutral athlete to win a medal at the World Championships in London.
The 26-year-old failed to retain his 110 meters hurdles world title, winning silver behind Jamaica's Omar McLeod in Monday's final.
Shubenkov’s silver was the first major international medal won by any Russian athlete since the country’s athletics federation was suspended over a 2015 World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report exposing systematic doping in the sport.
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Although he was disappointed with his second place, Shubenkov said the circumstances surrounding his status as a neutral athlete gave the achievement a different meaning.
“I feel like I am being congratulated more now than if I had won gold and if I had won it as part of the normal Russian team,” Shubenkov said at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport before taking a connecting flight to his Siberian hometown of Barnaul.
Shubenkov has also been praised by Russian officials, who have largely supported athletes’ efforts to compete as neutrals.
"After such a long suspension from international competitions, a silver like this is equivalent to a gold," TASS news agency quoted sports minister Pavel Kolobkov as saying.
Unlike at the last two world championships in Beijing and Moscow — where Shubenkov won gold and bronze respectively – he could not wear his country’s colors in London.
“It was of course a little strange not to see the Russian flag at the medals ceremony,” he said.
Shubenkov is among the dozens of Russians cleared in recent months to compete internationally as neutrals by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) after demonstrating that his training programme met the proper anti-doping requirements.
Like the 18 other Russians competing as neutrals in London, Shubenkov could not wear his country's colors or any national symbols.
When Shubenkov arrived in Moscow, a piece of grey tape was still covering a Russian athletics federation logo on his black backpack.
But his coach Sergei Klevtsov was proudly wearing a powder blue T-shirt with a double-headed golden eagle, a Russian national symbol.
It remains unclear when Shubenkov and other Russians will be allowed to compete again under their country’s flag.
The IAAF said last week that Russia's athletics federation still had to meet several criteria before it could be reinstated.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)