PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - In four years U.S. skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender has ridden an emotional roller coaster as intense as her sport, which involves hurtling down a steep, twisting tongue of ice, head first.
She missed out on a bronze medal at the 2014 Sochi Games by four hundredths of a second, then rejoiced last November when Olympic authorities stripped third-placegetter Elena Nikitina of her medal for doping. Uhlaender was next in line for the podium.
Then, three weeks ago, the Russian’s appeal was upheld and Uhlaender’s life-long dream of an Olympic medal vanished again.
It was a “gut punch”, she said.
“I spent the first two days in tears, then I was inspired again, then I’m in tears,” the four-time Olympian said at the Pyeongchang Winter Games, where she finished 13th.
“It’s a roller coaster. It was really hard to feel like I just had a moment to focus and be an athlete.”
The experience has been shared by several athletes at Pyeongchang, where Russians are competing as neutral athletes — a penalty imposed over allegations that the nation has run a systematic, drug-cheating program for years.
Several Olympians, coaches and sports officials say the Olympic spirit is dampened and the credibility of the Olympic movement undermined by the emotional toll taken on athletes by the awarding, stripping and re-awarding of medals.
“My hope was that Russia’s doping system was killed totally,” said Latvian skeleton coach Dainis Dukurs, who coaches his sons Martins and Tomass.
“But it has not happened. They are playing some games... They’re allowed to take part, not allowed to take part. There’s doping, then no doping.”
After Russian skeleton racer Alexander Tretyakov was stripped of his Sochi gold medal last year, Martins Dukurs looked set to be promoted to first place while brother Tomass was next in line for bronze.
On the day Tretyakov was stripped, the brothers were training in Canada. Their father was awoken at night by phone calls from Latvia to congratulate him on their new medals.
The joy was short-lived.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) exonerated Tretyakov this month, so Martins Dukurs, a two-time Olympic silver medalist, is likely to end his career without his coveted gold.
In recent months, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has banned more than 40 Russian athletes from the Olympics for life and voided their Sochi results. Thirteen medals, including four golds, were stripped from Russians in the process.
But CAS later ruled there was insufficient evidence that 28 athletes were guilty of anti-doping violations at Sochi. It confirmed violations in 11 other cases, meaning that nine of the 13 medals have been restored to their original Russian winners.
The IOC is responsible for allocating, withdrawing or reallocating medals, a process that can take months or even years.
Tensions surrounding the presence of Russian athletes at Pyeongchang have simmered from the start. They were exacerbated this week by a doping case involving Russian curler Alexander Krushelnitsky, who won bronze with his wife in mixed doubles.
“This is more than just about us, it’s about clean sport,” said Sam Edney, a Canadian luger who won silver in the mixed team relay in Pyeongchang but missed the podium in Sochi by one tenth of a second in the same event.
His team could have been upgraded to bronze at Sochi had CAS not cleared Russia’s Tatyana Ivanova and Albert Demchenko.
“And maybe deep down inside, that (CAS) decision lit a bit of a fire in our bellies the past seven days that we’ve been here,” Edney added.
French cross-country skier Jean-Marc Gaillard’s team in the 4x10 km relay at Sochi were set to be upgraded to silver but this month’s CAS ruling is leaving them with a bronze.
“It would have been difficult had we been fourth, but we were third,” said Gaillard, whose team also took bronze at Pyeongchang. “We have a medal. It doesn’t really change anything whether it’s bronze or silver.”
Of the 28 exonerated Russian athletes, Russia had been set to send 15 as part of the Pyeongchang team. But Olympic officials treated the CAS ruling as a technical acquittal for lack of evidence rather than clear proof of innocence. The IOC declined to invite the 15 to Pyeongchang.
One of those athletes, cross-country skier Alexander Legkov, won gold in the 50 km and silver in the 4x10 km relay in Sochi. In recent months, he has been on a roller coaster of his own.
“It was a tragedy, it was terrible, it was bad, it was unpleasant, it was painful,” Legkov said of his medals being stripped.
“But then we just kept training. We did everything to be able to keep living. When CAS cleared us, it showed us that we had not believed and hoped for nothing.”
Additional reporting by Liana B. Baker and Jane Chung; Editing by Mark Bendeich