Almost seven years have passed, but Olive Loughnane can still see the way Olga Kaniskina looked at her in Berlin.
The Russian had just beaten her into second place in the 20km race walk at the 2009 IAAF World Championships – with a significant boost from doping, it turned out – and as Loughnane stood tall on the podium, looking down at Kaniskina, there was just something about that look in her eyes.
“She was looking at me a bit dazed,” says Loughnane. “I don’t know if she was justifying [doping] by thinking everyone was doing it, or if she was looking at me going: ‘wow, she managed to do this without drugs.’”
Years later, it all started to make sense, and it really hit home yesterday morning when Loughnane found out she would officially be upgraded to gold from that event. Kaniskina was one of six Russians to be ruled against at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, her results from August 2009 until October 2012 deleted from the record books due to irregularities in her biological passport, the tool used to monitor changes in an athlete’s blood profile.
Loughnane was at home in Coachford, Co. Cork yesterday morning when the news came through that she was, finally, a world champion.
“I knew this day would come,” she said. “It’s nice to have it officially confirmed, to be winning medals when you’re retired. The ball is back in the IAAF’s court now in terms of me getting the medal.”
So great to be changing my profile to 2009 World Champion. Thanks for all the well wishes. This calls for some 🎉🎉 #officialrecognition— Olive Loughnane (@OliveLoughnane) March 24, 2016
There’s no other way to put it: Kaniskina destroyed her in Berlin, coming home 49 seconds in front, so did Loughnane know at the time she was competing against a doper?
“As an athlete, I parked that stuff,” she says. “To be fair, these girls were put under pressure. It wasn’t like Kaniskina went on the internet and bought whatever she took. It was systematic. I’m from a country where that behaviour is neither expected nor tolerated, and I’m very proud of that.”
When the news arrived yesterday, it washed over Loughnane like a tidal wave of relief, albeit one which left a trace of sadness. It wasn’t so much that race in Berlin which stings, but the walking pharmacies she faced three years later at the Olympics.
“I went into London in way better shape than Berlin and went out to finish in the medals,” she says. “But because I was taking on people who were totally drugged I just blew up, finished 13th and was totally gutted. Three of them have tested positive since, and I know in my heart I gave it everything.”
Kaniskina finished runner-up to fellow Russian Elena Lashmanova in London, with the third team member, Anisya Kirdyapkina, finishing fifth.
After retiring in 2012, Loughnane adapted to life away from the roads, tracks, and all the monotonous isolation they brought. She now works in the CSO and builds her career around her three young children: Eimear, Ciarán, and Aoileann.
“It’s only when you finish sport and step back into the real world do you realise how much you sacrificed,” she says.
There is a lingering sense of betrayal, though, not so much by her rivals as from the supposed guardians of her sport, people like former IAAF President Lamine Diack, who is currently being investigated by French authorities for allegedly covering up positive doping tests in exchange for payments.
— Niamh Briggs (@niamhbriggs15) March 24, 2016
“It went all the way to the top, and I’m bitter about what was effectively a systematic cover-up,” she says. “I feel that the people who were supposed to be protecting me were complicit in the cover-up.” Despite all that, she will watch and enjoy the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this summer, even if it means playing the old guessing game about who’s doing it clean.
“I feel I’m fairly well placed to recognise a strong, genuine performance.”
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