SARANSK: Saransk doesn’t really come across as a real-life town. It looks like something somebody made just for the World Cup. New buildings are everywhere, though it doesn’t really feel like there’s anyone living in them. One of the things that strikes you when you walk out of the railway station is just how small it is. Walk 10 minutes and ask someone where the city centre is and you will find them shaking their head and saying this is pretty much it.
How then, did tiny, far-flung Saransk, with less than 300,000 people, come to be known in the international media as Russia’s doping capital? The answer lies at the Olympic Training Centre which is over an hour’s drive from the city. Ask around the city for the Centre and not many people know what you’re talking about. Deliberately or otherwise, not many today know it by the Viktor Chegin National Race Walking Training Institute. It’s not there on the guide maps printed for the World Cup. Finally, one volunteer recognises the name.
“The Olympic Training Centre!” she exclaims. “That will be over here,” she circles her fingers over a blank area of the map. The Olympic Training Centre is where Panama is based but it had a drastic makeover in preparation for the World Cup. First off, there was the name change. Then renovation, a new pitch and a fresh coat of paint to hide away the scars of the past. For years, the Viktor Chegin National Race Walking Training Institute was one of the centres of Russia’s sophisticated doping programme that resulted in most of its athletes being barred from the 2016 Olympics.
When German TV network MDR screened a documentary revealing the extent of state-sponsored doping in Russia, the spotlight fell on its racewalkers as well, a sport the country had dominated for years. Most of the racewalkers trained at the institute in Saransk where Viktor Chegin was the head coach. Their success saw Chegin being hailed as a hero in the Republic of Mordovia of which Saransk is the capital. He was even awarded what amounted to a local knighthood — ‘the Chevalier of the Order of Glory of Mordovia’. But then, it was revealed that at least 20 of the racewalkers under him had been banned or suspended for doping. In 2014, after an investigation by the Russian anti-doping agency, Chegin was fired. In 2016, the WADA banned him for life.
The World Cup in Saransk has been a celebration of sorts — the city centre hosts food festivals on matchdays while music blares out from the party venues. But it has also been an effort to recover its reputation and disassociate it from the sins of the past. “(Chegin) doesn’t work for us,” Mordovia’s sports minister Vladimir Kireyev said. “We don’t even know where he is.” Saransk can pretend to forget its dark past. It will be a long time before the world can afford to do that. firstname.lastname@example.org