or a couple who changed the face of global sport, Vitaly and Yuliya Stepanov are surprisingly unassuming, almost embarrassed by the magnitude of their joint decision to speak out.
Vitaly, the anti-doping officer, and Yuliya, the athlete, were the first to lift the lid on Russian doping, a saga which dragged onto the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) today — at stake Russian participation at the rearranged Olympics and beyond.
Today, the couple remain in an undisclosed location in the United States, their accents a giveaway of their nationality although neighbours do not know about the past of six-year-old Robert’s parents.
Both, in a rare interview, are adamant there are no regrets over their decision to speak out, which forced them to pack their bags and leave Russia rapidly for fear of their lives.
Could they envisage a day when they go back home? Yuliya says: “While [Vladimir] Putin is president of Russia, it’s not safe for us to go to Russia.”
Putin described Yuliya as “a Judas”, and she doesn’t exactly disagree: “What else can he say? Of course, I am Judas for him. Because I tell the truth and he wants to hide it, he wants to cheat. Of course, I am Judas for him.”
Of a return to their homeland, she adds: “My friend asked me, ‘If you go to Russia, what happens with you?’ I told her they probably will kill us and they say this is an accident.”
On American soil, though, she feels safer: “My friend asked me, ‘Why do you think they cannot kill you here in America?’ And I told her that if they kill us here in America, Americans will investigate the case and the whole world will know the truth. But if they kill us in Russia, the Russians will investigate this case and they will just say it’s an accident.”
Vitaly, working for Rusada (the Russian Anti-Doping Agency), first contacted WADA in 2010 with reports of Russian doping. But, after years of failing to get any action, he was advised to contact the German journalist Hajo Seppelt and together they lifted the lid on Russian doping in a documentary in December 2014, thanks to filming and recording by Yuliya of Russian athletes and coaches.
They have been hailed as heroes but both dismiss the tag. Yuliya says: “I don’t feel like I’m a hero, I’m just glad I tell the truth and I am not getting this big load of lies on my back.”
But the Russia scandal is ongoing, with CAS ruling on a case between WADA and Rusada, which reaches its conclusion on Thursday before a ruling in due course.
Central to the Stepanovs’ life is understandably their son, Robert, also the key figure in their decision to go public at great risk to their own safety. Mentioning their son and being taken out of Russia were their two sole stipulations for going on camera in the first place.
For Vitaly, the idea of a cleaner playing field was “always the hope from the beginning”. For Yuliya, a former middle-distance runner who herself had doped in the Russian system, the question of whether Russia has cleaned up its act is one she struggles answer: “We don’t know. It’s not easy to change mentality. Russian mentality is to cheat.”
Vitaly adds: “We did our part to expose the problem. They continue looking at us as traitors and we don’t know if something has changed, but we don’t think so.
“The anti-doping movement still has a lot of problems in almost every country of the world, including Russia and the United States. And unfortunately, there will still be a lot of clean athletes who may continue to be cheated out of their fair places in the Olympic Games. But the hope is step by step the whole system improves.”
The Stepanovs have found a happiness in the US that was lacking in the early days of their relationship. As first dates go, theirs was disastrous. With Vitaly thinking he was part of the functioning anti-doping programme, Yuliya revealed how, as a 19-year-old, she had first doped at the behest of her coach and was still doing so.
Looking back, Vitaly remembers: “I felt like an idiot because I thought I was part of a team to fix this. I then understood I was part of this bigger mechanism that has no belief in clean sport. They need medals and as many medal winners in as many possible sports, especially Olympic sports.”
At the end of their first date, they joked they would never see each other again. As for how date two happened, Vitaly adds: “We’re not too bright!”
But a love story blossomed, wife joining husband in the fight when she was banned for an athlete biological passport violation and turned whistleblower.
When they left Russia, they packed just four bags, assuming nothing would happen from their revelations. Yuliya felt the worldly opinion was “that many countries cheat and nobody cares”.
But they remain in a limbo of sorts. They have moved around a few times since arriving in the US but now feel settled in their home and hope that asylum might be granted in the future.
“We hope one day we can call this place home but currently it’s just the place where we are staying and we basically don’t have documents that allow us to stay here permanently,” Vitaly says. “There are bigger issues in the world but we stood for truth as a family and we kept fighting for the truth. There are some results to this fight.”