Katie Uhlaender had just arrived in South Korea, had just started her Olympic experience, when she learned of the latest turn in a saga that began four years ago. Rather than placing her entire focus on the upcoming Winter Games, the American skeleton racer relived competitive heartbreak again and rekindled grave concerns about the integrity of the Olympics.
"It takes away from the moment," Uhlaender said, speaking Thursday night from South Korea. "I was expecting to arrive in Korea and be stoked and just really excited to have a clean Olympics and thinking everything had been set right. To none of that being the case, and not understanding why."
Thursday morning, the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned Olympic bans for 28 Russian athletes who allegedly took part in Russia's widespread, state-sponsored doping program. The decision sparked frustration from athletes around the world and confusion about how the International Olympic Committee will proceed, with the start of the PyeongChang Games barely a week away. It may have affected no one more personally than Uhlaender.
The charismatic Uhlaender, with colorful hair and a menacing eagle on her helmet, finished fourth at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. She lost to Russia's Elena Nikitina by four hundredths of a second. When the IOC banned scores of Russian athletes and stripped Sochi winners of their medals, Nikitina was among them. Uhlaender was in line for a bronze.
The CAS decision, though, dashed Uhlaender's medal hopes, at least for now, with the possibility of an IOC appeal and more years of litigation pending. Uhlaender said she cried when the news came out for both personal and broad reasons. For her, the ruling meant more than her own medal.
"It just makes me sad," Uhlaender said. "I thought the IOC was taking a strong stand and protecting clean athletes and the integrity, and I hope that they continue to do so, because it will add fuel to my fire and help me fight. Right now, it's not just me — a lot of athletes feel like we're believing in a movement that is dying."
The CAS decision disheartened Uhlaender because, in her mind, it allowed the Russians an ill-gained victory. The CAS reasoned the athletes it pardoned could not be proved to have doped. But part of Russia's strategy, according to the IOC's report, was to destroy evidence of cheating.
"To say they can't prove an athlete is dirty, that just helps Russia accomplish what they set out to do in the first place," Uhlaender said. "My thoughts were, does this mean we have to compete against the dirty athletes again? This was a huge blow to clean sport, and the integrity of sport. People are saying they can't prove they were dirty. In the same breath, you can't prove that they were innocent. They can prove the samples were destroyed to make that possible. In my mind, if they destroyed the samples with the goal of keeping the medals, then we're letting them win. It's disheartening."
The ruling reinstated results from Sochi that had been thrown out, CAS secretary general Matthieu Reeb said in PyeongChang. The IOC could still move to prevent Nikitina and other suspected Russian dopers from competing again, but for now, their fate remains hazy. In Russia, Nikitina said she would train as if expecting to compete in the Olympics.
"We were hoping for justice and it has prevailed," Nikitina said, according to the Associated Press. "It's a matter of my life, what I do, and when you're accused like that it's very unpleasant and everything falls apart for you."
The timing carried the possibility of disruption for Uhlaender. She applied her entire focus toward PyeongChang, determined to perform her best to honor her late father, MLB player Ted Uhlaender, and her late best friend, Team USA bobsledder Steve Holcomb. She still plans to make them proud, and to control what she can control. First, though, she received another reminder of Sochi.
"This is a distraction," Uhlaender said. "I'm a human being. There is a lot of emotion in just seeing something so unjust happen. But to be a good human, to be a good Christian, I have to focus on what I can control and set the example. That's what a lot of athletes are tying to do, is focus on what we believe in and the good in the Olympic movement. I just hope the leadership of that movement takes note and becomes our voice. I, as an Olympic athlete, am turning to leadership of this movement, and I'm asking them to do what's right. Because they have let down a lot of us."
Uhlaender was weary of granting interviews on the topic, not wanting to put her mind through the emotional grinder. After speaking Thursday night with The Post, she planned to put a hiatus on speaking with the media until after she competes. But she decided to speak out in hopes of promoting clean sport and inspiring IOC leadership to continue trying to prevent, or at least punish, doping.
"The people fighting for us, that are continuing to fight and not giving up. It inspires me," Uhlaender said. "I just hope the leaders are not giving up and they continue to fight for clean sport. I don't believe it's black-and-white that people have failed or succeeded. I think it's a constant battle. For those that are continuing to stand up for what's right, thank you."
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