By Eddie Pells
AP National Writer
RIO DE JANEIRO — For decades, race walking and all its straight-legged, hip-swaying awkwardness has largely been ignored, derided and sometimes ridiculed by those unfamiliar with the inner workings of the sport.
To the Russians, it was never a joke.
Aware of the nine Olympic medals available — the first three of the Rio Games are up for grabs Friday in the 20-kilometer men’s walk — Russia ramped up a doping machine that produced champion race walkers, year after year. That machine won 11 medals in the past five games. It worked so well, in fact, that race walking became the epicenter of the doping scandal that engulfed the country’s entire sports program and led to the ouster of the track team from this year’s Olympics.
“I wasn’t surprised,” retired American race walker Curt Clausen said of the revelations about Russian race walking that have surfaced over the past two years. “I was more glad somebody is finally shining some light on the issue.”
Clausen is 48 now and keeps his hand in the game as a member of the USA Track and Field board of directors. At his house in Wisconsin is a replica of the bronze medal he won at the 1999 world championships. The duplicate medal — he never got the original — was awarded to him two years after the race, when the Russian winner, German Skurygin, was disqualified for doping. Clausen calls it “my big penny, the validation for my career.”
He received it during a break at a national meet in 2001.
“It was like a 38-second ceremony, and people didn’t understand why I was getting the medal,” Clausen said.
Much to his shock, Skurygin had served his ban and was back out on the course two years later, dominating races again. Two years after that, Skurygin died of a heart attack at age 45.
It came as no surprise to Clausen, then, when Russian race walkers started being kicked out of the sport at an alarming rate. There have been at least 33 doping cases involving Russian walkers in recent years, with 26 of them serving bans. They trained out of a small city in central Russia called Saransk. Many were coached by Viktor Chegin, who resigned last year.
“I once told Curt I didn’t know if all the doping (in the sport) affected me much,” said American John Nunn, a member of this year’s team whose best finish at his previous two Olympics is 26th. “Curt smiled. He said, ‘John, when you finish fourth and miss the podium because the person in front of you doped, it takes on a whole new meaning.’”
It takes on even greater meeting to Jared Tallent, the Australian who finished second to Russian Sergey Kirdyapkin at the London Olympics but received the gold medal earlier this year after Kirdyapkin got nailed for doping. The IOC website posting the results of that race says they are not final, because retests of samples from both Beijing and London are still being analyzed.
Earlier this year, Tallent finished second to Italian Alex Schwarzer at the World Race Walking Team Championships in Rome. Schwarzer had a four-year doping ban reduced by three months, which made him eligible for the major race in his home country. About a month after the event, it was revealed he had another positive. He has been banned from the Olympics and is appealing, with a decision expected this week from the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
The case involving Schwarzer, who also beat Tallent at the Beijing Olympics, illustrates how far race walking still has to go to clean up its act, even with the Russians out of the mix. The woman who won the 20K in Rome and is a favorite at the Olympics, China’s Liu Hong, got stripped of the Rome title and served an almost-unheard-of one-month ban. Liu is coached by the same Italian who used to coach Schwarzer.
“I’m still leery about what’s going to happen,” Nunn said.
Tallent is trying to stay upbeat, and said that Friday — along with Aug. 19, when the women’s 20K and men’s 50K walks take place — should be good days for his sport.
“They have been the main culprits in our sport,” Tallent said of the Russians, in an interview with Australian media last week. “A lot of the top guys will think they have got a chance for a medal, whereas in the past, when you had the three Russians there, you always thought it was going to be pretty tough to get a medal.”
Of course, none of that can erase the past — or give Clausen the turn on the medals podium that was denied him all those years ago.
Still, he’ll be in Rio for the races — rooting for his American buddy, Nunn, along with others he knows have done things the right way over the years.
“It seems there’s been a failure at many different levels,” Clausen said. “Now that that’s been brought to light, I’m optimistic some of those gaps can be closed.”