Before the women’s 800 meters final at the 2012 London Olympics, Alysia Montaño crafted a plan based upon the bleak reality of her sport. Her coach, she recalls, told her, “You’re going to have a couple girls who aren’t clean in your race.” On track and field’s largest stage, Montaño knew she required a strategy to beat pharmacology as much as athleticism.
“My whole race plan was based on doing what I could to get a head start to beat the dopers,” Montaño said Monday in a phone conversation. “That’s how I approached it. It’s so sad my race plan had to be like that. It had to be like, ‘Okay, I’m racing against robots. How can I try to get a leg up on them before they start coming after me?’ ”
The World Anti-Doping Agency released a report Monday detailing widespread doping and systemic corruption within Russia’s track and field establishment, including bribery of International Association of Athletics Federation officials. The report recommended five Russian athletes receive lifetime bans from competition. Two of them were Mariya Savinova and Ekaterina Poistogova. Savinova won gold in the women’s 800 meters at London; Poistogova took bronze. Montaño finished fifth, two places off the medal stand.
The WADA report cast a pall over the entire sport. Perhaps no athlete was more directly impacted than Montaño. Remove Savinova and Poistogova, and she is an Olympic medalist. With them in the race, she finished off the podium.
“This is a big, big scandal,” Montaño said. “Many people will be affected by it. Specifically, me.”
For three years, Montaño carried her fifth-place result with sadness and hurt and pride. Monday morning brought Montaño more pain, but also relief that she no longer needed to withhold her true feelings. She knew for years she should have won an Olympic medal. Now she has proof. Now, at least, she can talk about it.
“It’s actually incredibly painful just to think about that moment, those moments lost,” Montaño said. “I can’t get that back. Of course I want what’s mine. At the same time, it’s incredibly saddening.”
The report brought Montano a measure of validation, but also a new wave of frustration. She may have a legal fight ahead. She again envisioned herself on the podium, watching the American flag rise, the moment that never happened.
“There’s so much lost,” Montaño said. “Not just emotionally, but financially. There’s so much lost. You can’t get that back. It leaves you very, very sad at just these inhumane acts, unethical acts of people. You can’t wrap your head around why or how people could feel good about their efforts, knowing that they did it dishonestly.”
Make no mistake: Montaño knew it the whole time. In a sport that rewards incremental improvement, she saw her Russian competition emerge from nowhere. Montaño regarded implementing a new core routine that shaved .012 seconds off her time as a major accomplishment. Meantime, she watched Savinova whittle her 800 time from roughly 2 minutes, 2 seconds to 1 minute, 56 seconds in a year.
Montaño , 29, also watched the Russians after races and could not comprehend their actions. As she gasped and doubled over, they would smile and high-five and mug for the camera, far from a natural reaction for someone who had been sprinting two straight minutes.
“Our genetic makeup isn’t so drastically different that when you cross the finish line against a pretty intense field that you’re not like, ‘Ugggghh’ – like, gassed by the end of it,” Montaño said. “You don’t just put your hands up and jog around and smile like, ‘Wooo!’ It’s not like that.”
As she raced against and lost to the Russians, Montaño wanted to vent. She yearned to scream in interviews, “Do you recognize what I’m against?” Without objective proof, Montaño held her tongue.
“Another emotion I feel is relief,” Montaño said. “You know this is not right, but you can’t say anything. If you say anything without there being hard evidence, then you look sour to people who don’t know the sport. All the people in the sport know this isn’t right. But what I can I do? What can I do except go forward and try to be the honest athlete that I am?”
The frustration wore on her. She confided in her husband and her coach, but never revealed her suspicions publicly. She never considered leaving track, but her experience made her wonder if she should.
“I’ve gone through the roller-coaster ride of, ‘Why am I in this sport?’” Montaño said. “How can they reward dirty athletes? It eats at you. You have all these decisions that you’re okay holding off on, and then you recognize, ‘Okay, my results are not just based off me. It’s off of other people’s actions.’
“It’s so difficult emotionally. You start to become more and more unhappy with recognizing your efforts don’t mean anything in the sport if they’re going to reward cheaters. I’m not willing to put up with that. You’re like, I feel like I can’t show my support if that’s what it comes down to. I feel like I can’t continue to go after something that may never be mine if that’s what’s allowed in the sport. I’m unwilling to bend. I’m unwilling to be untrue to myself.”
Before the London Olympics, Montaño decided that if she medaled, she would put her career on pause and start a family. After she consulted with her husband, they decided her result should have won her a medal, and they had their first child, anyway. In 2014, she famously ran the national outdoor championships while eight months pregnant with her daughter. “Thankfully, I was able to put myself in a mind frame where I was proud of what I did,” Montano said.
Rather than beating the Russians, Montaño focused on personal bests and shaving time off her races. She decided she had not gotten into track for the money, and so she would try not to focus on material rewards. Montaño knew, though, that losing medals to the Russians had cost her an undetermined amount of money, more than she wants to think about.
“I definitely have tried not to,” Montaño said. “It would have put me in a really, really bad funk.”
Montaño figured without the Russians’ cheating, she would have upgraded from bronze to silver at the 2010 world indoor championships and medaled when she did not at the 2011 world championship, the London Games and the 2013 world championships. Counting only bonuses from sponsors and federations, and setting aside the bump in notoriety and deals from winning an Olympic medal, Montaño believes she lost out on more than $500,000.
“It’s depressing,” she said.
Montaño said she is “definitely going to look into” legal action against the IAAF. At this point, she doesn’t even know where to start.
She woke up Monday morning prepared for a training session, focused on Rio in 2016. She pushed the workout back after the report came out, but soon she plans to use it as motivational fuel.
“This report today has definitely sent a nice jolt of electricity to my plan and what I’ve been looking for,” Montano said. “It’s awesome.”
Montaño can remember the end of the London 800 meters race. She bent at the waist a few feet behind Savinova, the gold medal winner, while teammates kissed her on the cheek in celebration. She eventually walked off the track and into the arms of her coach. She cried. “I gave everything,” she told him. “I gave everything.” He told her, “I know.”
“I feel huge relief I can open my mouth,” Montaño said. “It’s sad. I don’t want to sound like I’m sour or that, ‘You’re just mad that you lost.’ It’s relief that I’m starting to feel, that I can say something. But again, there’s moments lost that make it so incredibly painful to talk about it.
“I’ll be very confident in talking about how I feel, and then something will hit me and I’ll feel incredibly sad, and I’ll just be crying about it. Crying, it’s just a weird emotion. Why am I crying right now? You can’t put your finger on it, but you’re just weak.”