Katie Uhlaender has shed plenty of tears over the years about how she was so close to an Olympic medal, so close to standing on that podium and watching the American flag get raised in her honor.
She cried again Wednesday. Those tears were happy ones.
The long-awaited word has come down: Uhlaender is about to be an Olympic bronze medalist. The International Olympic Committee disqualified four Russian skeleton athletes from the 2014 Sochi Games, including men’s gold medalist Aleksandr Tretiakov and women’s bronze medalist Elena Nikitina, for doping violations and further banned them from the games going forward.
“I understand that it was a difference of culture and that the Russians don’t believe they did anything wrong,” Uhlaender said. “But this was the only way to fix it.”
Tretiakov’s disqualification means Latvia’s Martins Dukurs will be promoted to gold, Matt Antoine of the U.S. to silver and Latvia’s Tomass Dukurs, Martins’ brother, to bronze. In the women’s race, Uhlaender moves up one spot from fourth, placing her alongside gold medalist Lizzy Yarnold of Britain and silver medalist Noelle Pikus-Pace of the U.S.
“Changing medals, it’s good, it’s great, but it’s not life-changing for me to go from bronze to silver,” Antoine said. “For me, the biggest thing right now is justice. It feels like finally the people who didn’t play fairly, didn’t compete fairly, are getting what they deserved.”
The Russian doping saga has dragged on for years, and still isn’t over. There are other medalists, including double gold winner Alexander Zubkov — now the president of the Russian Bobsleigh Federation — who remain under investigation related to the state-sponsored doping scandal that could keep Russia out of this winter’s Pyeongchang Games entirely.
No one is sure what exactly happens next. The IOC asked the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation to modify the Olympic results, which is a formality. Antoine likely will have to surrender his bronze medal since it’ll apparently be going to Tomass Dukurs, though he’s gotten no instructions regarding when or how to do that.
Uhlaender also hasn’t been told when she will get her medal. The IBSF said more information can be expected “within days.”
“The IOC taking a stand like this and doing the right thing has restored my faith in the system and the sport,” Uhlaender said. “I’m just even more motivated and honored to be a part of this movement and I want to be on that podium in Korea and prove it was not a fluke. I’m just overwhelmed right now. But this has definitely added fuel to my fire.”
The sliders got the news while in Whistler, British Columbia, where the World Cup tour is this weekend. Antoine said he woke up to about 40 text messages and 10 emails; Uhlaender was getting calls, texts and emails from around the world starting at 5 a.m. and couldn’t figure out why. Tretiakov and Nikitina were both in Whistler as well, and Russian officials said appeals will be filed.
In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this season, Yarnold said she believes any athlete caught doping should be given “the harshest sanctions possible.”
“The saddest thing is to know that athletes potentially missed their moments of being on the podium, receiving the medals that they deserved,” Yarnold said. “That has really upset me.”
Nikitina is the World Cup women’s points standings leader after the first two races of the season; she finished fourth in Lake Placid, New York, and won gold last weekend in Park City, Utah. Her start times — in skeleton, sliders sprint the first few meters while towing their sled and then jump aboard — have been the source of skepticism for years, given how much faster she is than even other elite competitors.
Tretiakov is fourth in the men’s World Cup standings, after a bronze in Lake Placid and a sixth-place finish in Park City. He and Nikitina both participated in Wednesday’s training session for this weekend’s World Cup races, hours after the decisions were announced by the IOC.
“It’s an important day, in that most people in the sport have felt like this needed to happen,” USA Bobsled and Skeleton CEO Darrin Steele said. “It was a long wait. There’s a process and in a lot of ways, it’s a relief that it’s finally happening.”