AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Yulia Stepanova’s much-heralded return to action turned into a damp squib on Wednesday when the Russian whistleblower, running as an independent athlete, dropped out of her 800 meters heat with a foot injury having been off the pace throughout.
Stepanova has not raced since September due to the ban on Russian athletes but raced under the European Athletics Association (EAA) flag at the European championships after the sport’s governing body had requested she be given special dispensation to compete as an independent.
“Yulia is very weak psychologically and she can only run when she has been doping,” her former coach Vladimir Kazarin told Sport Express newspaper.
“If she is now training without the help of doping, then she won’t achieve anything and won’t get to her former levels.”
Stepanova, who turned 30 on Sunday, is hoping the International Olympic Committee will allow her to run in the Rio Games under a neutral flag and has the qualifying standard, but she looked desperately off the pace from the gun on Wednesday.
Wearing black and white striped kit with an EAA badge, she received a ripple of polite applause when introduced to the sparse crowd but was adrift of the pack within the first 100 meters.
She came through the halfway point around two seconds down before pulling up midway through the second lap and reaching for her right foot.
She then walked the remaining distance, limping heavily, to an eerie, almost silent atmosphere.
Stepanova served a two-year doping ban from 2013 but then, along with her husband Vitaly, played a major role in exposing the extent of the state-sponsored doping that led to Russia being banned from the sport last November.
She currently lives in the United States, saying she fears for her safety after receiving threats.
“She never stopped training but she had not done the necessary training to run two minutes because she did not know she would be allowed to compete,” he husband Vitaly told Reuters on Tuesday.
“She also has had some minor injuries lately so she is not in great shape yet.
“I don’t know what she will do but it is not about winning now, it’s just about trying to compete, respecting the competition and not putting the result ahead of the rules.”
“She is just happy to be able to compete again and whatever she can run, she will run.”
(Writing by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond)