By Martyn Herman
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Russia's Olga Zabelinskaya protested her innocence after winning the silver medal in the women's time trial on Wednesday, a week after almost flying home because a previous doping ban looked like ruling her out of the Olympics.
The 36-year-old Russian mother-of-three was beaten to the top step of the podium by American veteran Kristin Armstrong, missing out on victory by 5 seconds after a strong ride around the 29.7 km course.
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Her participation had caused ill-feeling in the peloton, with British rider Emma Pooley saying she would refuse to shake Zabelinskaya's hand if she won a medal.
However, the Russian, who served an 18-month suspension in 2014-15 for testing positive for a banned stimulant, said she had never doped and that the fact she was breastfeeding her youngest child at the time of the test proved it.
"No, I never in my life," she told reporters when asked if she had ever doped.
"I am clean for myself, for my kids, for everything, when I got this problem with doping, I had my third child and I breastfeeded in this time.
"Any mother knows if you breastfeed you can't take any medicine."
After independent reports for the World Anti-Doping Agency found evidence of widespread state-sponsored cheating in Russia, Olympics bosses said no athlete with a past conviction for doping should be allowed to compete in Rio - a position the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled unenforceable.
Several Russians, including Zabelinskaya, were reinstated at the last minute but she said it had been a nervy wait.
"On Aug. 5, I had my ticket to go to Russia at 2 o'clock, and at 11 o'clock, on the way to airport, they tell me I stay here. It was two weeks like this, in the morning we go, in the evening we don't," she said.
Armstrong, who embraced Zabelinskaya afterwards, steered clear of criticizing her Russian rival.
"I'm one person who doesn't make judgment so when I show up to the start line, if this is the official start list, this is who I am racing against," the 42-year-old said.
"I congratulate both competitors up here today for their great performance."
Australian Katrin Garfoot, who finished ninth, also preferred not to pass judgment, adding "karma hopefully will sort everything out that should or should not be out there".
Zabelinskaya tested positive for the stimulant octopamine while riding in Costa Rica in 2014 but the Russian cycling federation cleared her - a decision challenged by world governing body UCI at CAS.
Earlier this year, she accepted the ban, which expired in September 2015, rather than trying to clear her name with CAS.
"Of course I don't accept the ban, but I didn't go to CAS because I didn't have time for this," the double bronze medalist from London, told reporters.
"They find one octopamine, it's produced (in the) body, when you have some disease, it's seafood ... from this.
"We prove this with the biological and everything, and I didn't have time to go ahead with the (CAS) because I had to race, and if I don't race I don't get to go to the Olympics."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Alison Williams)