Ilnur Zakarin considering changing citizenship: we explain why this isn’t betrayal but prudence

The famous cyclist doesn’t want to miss the second Olympics in a row

30-year-old Ilnur Zakarin has already missed one Olympics and didn’t compete in Rio in 2016. In fact, not his personal sins but the incompetence, inactivity and lack of backbone of the country’s sports leadership and the cycling federation were the reason for it. It is no surprise that now the cyclist has announced he might change his citizenship that can help him to compete in Tokyo in 2020. Realnoe Vremya remembers the nuances of the previous expulsion and forecasts an outflow of Russian athletes to other countries’ national teams.

“You fought for Yulia and simply forgot their talented guy”

“I would like to compete under any flag. If Russia is not allowed, and if I can compete under the neutral flag, it’s very important for me,” Ilnur Zakarin said in an interview with Cycling News and answered the correspondent’s question if he really thought about obtaining Cypriot citizenship and compete for this country: “I had such an idea. It’s possible but I’m not sure, I’ll have to think about this. The last time, I missed the Olympic Games because of political games. We can never ever mix the political games with the Olympic Games. I was sort of a victim of that”.

If we remember the nuances of why Zakarin missed the Olympics in Rio, we can agree with the Chelny-born athlete that, indeed, he fell victim to “political games”. Moreover, it was a singular case. The case is that one principle of participation of Russian athletes at the Olympics was used in Rio: the IOC left this issue up to international federations, and they decided themselves who should be allowed and who shouldn’t. This is why two federations didn’t allow our athletes almost completely — the weightlifting and athletics federations (except for Daria Klishina who lived and trained in America, and her non-admission would mean that the International Association of Athletics Federations didn’t trust USADA, which controlled Klishina’s doping samples). Rowers were partly allowed, losses in this sport were so big that Russia didn’t manage to make up even one good crew.

The mention of the athlete’s name in Rodchenkov’s records, McLaren’s report and, lo and behold, the doping past could become an obstacle to allowing him to compete. Swimmer Yulia Yefimova, cyclists Olga Zabelinskaya and Ilnur Zakarin and a number of athletes didn’t break this barrier to the Olympics. Here tribute should be paid to Yefimova Team autonomous non-profit organisation helping to develop swimming and its then-co-founder Andrey Mitkov who went all out for defending his athletes at CAS where the application of the principle of second punishment for the same violation ineligible. Only Yulia Yefimova’s victory became in the end a common victory for the rest of the Russians.

Ilnur Zakarin was one of the two athletes who were allowed to compete but didn’t. Andrey Kraitor who was to compete in Rio after winning an appeal at CAS was the second one, but his own federation didn’t allow him to compete at the Games. While Zakarin had flown to Tokyo when it was known that his fellow sufferers were allowed. The group road racing was the next day after the Olympics kicked off, and Zakarin simply didn’t have the time.

“That your cyclist Ilnur Zakarin didn’t participate in the Olympics in Rio is a telling example of Tatarstan’s attitude athletes,” above-mentioned Mitkov shared his perception of the situation with the article’s author once. “Yulia was in the same situation as Ilnur, but we fought for her and won, while your sports bosses simply forgot their talented guy. This story allowed me to understand why the Republic of Tatarstan with such fantastic infrastructure to develop sport, that invests huge money to develop the infrastructure couldn’t win a model at the Olympic Games in Rio. I am afraid that with such an attitude to athletes Tatarstan unlikely should wait for a breakthrough in elite sport.”

Not exactly, Tatarstan fought for Zakarin as much as he could, Vice Minister of Sport Khalil Shaykhutdinov considered his non-participation in Rio in 2016 as personal pain. And if Ilnur was quite unexpectedly recognised Athlete of the Year in 2017, they tried to support him morally with this doubtful decision, but… The state can do little in cycling, especially in road racing.

Bright shoulder of cycling

Cycle sport is one of the few Olympic sports that exists in Russia as private and public partnership. The state almost completely controls track disciplines because private businesses aren’t interested in building tracks as such, maintaining them, educating athletes, monetising competitions. Private businesses are interested only in participating in road racings, and our readers have probably heard about Le Tour de France, Giro d'Italia, Vuelta and so on. And infamous Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador and current stars Chris Froome, Fabian Cancellara, deceased Marco Pantani, same Zakarin are all road cyclists, in fact, representatives of private teams, a kind of cycling NHL or NBA. Astana Pro Time sponsored by Samruk-Kazyna state sport development fund through which other sports projects of the state are financed in Kazakhstan is the only team that can be called state-owned.

In Russia, Lokosphinx from Petersburg or Gazprom Rusvelo Zakarin used to compete for can be called such cycling teams, but these velodromes aren’t in the world’s top. But it isn’t their task, including because the Olympic programme has only four medal sets on the road, while tracks have ten.

As for road cycling, representatives of private structures were and are interested in it. Famous banker Oleg Tinkov maintained his namesake team for three years having purchased a Danish sports team, but he stopped this costly activity in 2016. In 2017, another Russian team Katyusha Alpecin, which was and is chaired by Russian oligarch Igor Makarov, passed to the jurisdiction of Switzerland.

In fact, he was the president of the Russian cycling federation in 2016 and, to put it simply, didn’t care about his compatriot and pupil (Zakarin also competes for Katyusha Alpecin).

Makarov like then-President of the Olympic Committee of Russia Aleksandr Zhukov agreed with the IOC’s requirements that said that Russians with the doping past shouldn’t participate in the Games beforehand. Famous cycling coach Aleksandr Kuznetskov directly accused Zhukov of inaction: “If we remember the Olympics in Russia, Zhukov had almost decapitated the Russian road cycling team on the eve having rudely required the president of the Russian cycling federation (Makarov) to take Ilnur Zakarin off the plane and immediately revoke the claim filed by this talented cyclist’s lawyer”.

Later in his interview in 2017 to the website Velolive, Kuznetsov (famous cyclist Galina Tsaryova’s husband and famous tennis player Svetlana Kuznetsova’s father) provided stricter arguments. “As Russians didn’t reply for the Summer Olympics with a blow, before the Winter Games you will get a lifelong disqualification of a whole group of leading athletes! We were just obliged to reply to the blow with a blow to WADA and speaker Richard McLaren! The inaction of our Olympic Committee of Russia, to put it frankly, is deadly. Today it is completely clear that under Aleksandr Zhukov the Olympic Committee of Russia turned into a pressure point of Russian sport’s weakness instead of the centre of power. The behaviour of the ministry of sport also surprises me. How is it possible they haven’t reacted to the destructive inactivity of the Olympic Committee of Russia for so long?”

After 2016, Makarov left the leadership of the cycling federation, and former cyclist Vyacheslav Yekimov chaired it (who is, by the way, Kuznetsov’s pupil). But it isn’t hard to guess that as a general manager of Katyusha Alpecin Yekimov would have unlikely gone against the opinion of the person in whose team he worked, while the ex-president of the federation would have unlikely fought for the athlete who would obviously not be allowed to the Games if he competed under the Russian flag.

Zakarin isn’t first, Zabelinskaya expressed a desire to change national team earlier

The dilemma with the participation in the Olympics can make not only Zakarin change his citizenship. Olga Zabelinskaya who went to the team Uzbekistan in 2018 did so. The 39-year-old daughter of the 1980 Olympic champion Sergey Sukhoruchenkov had to miss the 2018 and 2019 World Championships because of quarantine. It is hard to say if Zakarin will have quarantine because he hasn’t competed internationally with the team Russia this year, and his last competition was at the world championship on 30 September 2018.

But Zakarin should consider not only the terms of the quarantine, which are different in different sports. It is necessary to understand what principle the IOC and WADA will use to allow athletes to Tokyo in 2020. After quite a forgiving admission to Rio in 2016, 1,5 years later the IOC resorted to a stricter selection principle in Pyeongchang where there must be an invitation. According to this principle, Anton Shipulin (biathlon), Sergey Ustyugov (skiing), Ivan Bukin and Ksenia Stolbova (figure skating, because of which their partners Fyodor Klimov and Aleksandra Stepanova didn’t go to the Games) had to miss the Olympics without any explanation.

It is as clear as day that the doping past that is darkened by the presence of the Russian passport as well won’t allow Zakarin to compete at the Olympics. And nobody in the IOC and WADA doesn’t care even though he has already been punished twice (!) by completing the disqualification and missing Rio in 2016. Athletes with the doping past are allowed to compete in international competitions if they don’t represent Russia, there are tens of examples of such practice as well as examples of that our athletes who have never received any complaint have never competed at the Olympics.

If the IOC and WADA tighten the rules to allow or invite Russians to the Olympics, those who solved problems at the last moment in 2016 will have real problems again. It is swimmers, same Yefimova, Mikhail Dovgalyuk, Anastasia Krapivina, Natalia Klyukina (Lovtsova), Vitalina Simonova, each of whom had a doping-related episode in their career, as well as Vladimir Morozov, Nikita Lobintsev, Daria Ustinova mentioned in the famous McLaren Report, rowers Aleksey Korovashkov, Aleksey Pervukhin, cyclist Sergey Shilov.

Interestingly, after losing Zakarin, the cycling team of Tatarstan supported his mate Pavel Kochetkov who had nothing to do with our republic and competed for it by invitation. Now, if we lose Ilnur, we can worry about… Shane Perkins, an Australian who joined the national team of Russia immediately after Rio… It is a paradox…

By Dzhaudat Abdullin

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