Avoiding what would have almost certainly been a widely boycotted world championships, international officials pulled this season's biggest bobsled and skeleton competition out of Russia on Tuesday after a number of sliders said they would not compete in a nation so enveloped in a doping scandal.
The decision was immediately praised by sliders. Russia's bobsled federation said it understood the rationale, even after government officials there decried the move.
A new site — Germany and the U.S. are potential hosts — will likely be announced in the coming days. The move by the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation comes less than a week after the latest scathing report from World Anti-Doping Association investigator Richard McLaren showed the depth of doping and test-tampering by Russia during the 2012 and 2014 Olympic cycles.
"That's a monumental decision by the IBSF and the right move to protect clean athletes and to tell the world that state-sponsored doping is unacceptable," U.S. women's bobsled pilot Elana Meyers Taylor said. "I am ecstatic about the decision."
Worlds were scheduled to happen over the last two weeks of February in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, on the track used for the 2014 Sochi Games.
The office of Russian President Vladimir Putin said the move was based on unfounded statements, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov calling it a "politicized decision." But the Russian bobsled federation said it accepted the move in the spirit of cooperation, and asked for understanding from other sliding teams.
"There are no good decisions in these circumstances and our colleagues have had to choose the lesser evil," the Russian federation said. "We understand that in a situation of mutual distrust, which is not of our creation, it is still possible to host a competition but it's not possible to host a festival, and the world championship should really be a festival which people look forward to with pleasure."
The IBSF worded its decision very cautiously, not implicating the Russian Bobsled Federation in any way. Instead, the international federation said moving worlds was the only way "to allow athletes and coaches from all nations to participate in a competition that focuses on sport rather than accusations and discussions — whether justified or not."
Some of the world's best sliders — including reigning Olympic medalists Steven Holcomb, Matt Antoine and Meyers Taylor of the U.S., Martins Dukurs of Latvia and Lizzy Yarnold of Britain — urged the IBSF for weeks to take the action. Latvia's national skeleton team said Sunday that it would boycott if worlds were held in Russia, and Austria and South Korea were also considering such a move.
Put simply, the primary athlete concern about going to Russia for world championships was the integrity of the doping process — with some even voicing worry that the hosts could tamper with food and drink supplies and create a situation where athletes would unknowingly ingest a banned substance. If caught in such a scenario, the athlete would have received a ban long enough to keep him or her from competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
"It's a huge risk to take," Holcomb said late last week.
It won't be an issue now. The Russians may seek compensation, but there's no basis for appeal.
"This was a serious decision and one the IBSF did not take lightly," USA Bobsled and Skeleton CEO Darrin Steele said. "It might not have come as quickly as many would have liked, but it received the careful attention it deserved."
McLaren's report showed that some Russian gold medalists from the Sochi Games were tainted by the state-sponsored doping program. Russia won gold medals in two-man bobsled, four-man bobsled and men's skeleton at those Olympics, though none of the athletes who got those victories has been implicated by any known positive or tampered-with tests.
Antoine said he was ready to announce that he was not going to worlds. He got word about the venue change while he and other athletes were driving Tuesday from the track at Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid, New York — site of this weekend's World Cup stop — after a training session.
"It's the right decision and I'm happy to see they took the proper steps," Antoine said. "I'm sure there's some people who are happy and some people who aren't too happy about it. But it's the reality of the situation. It's an unfortunate dark cloud that's over our sport right now. The process probably isn't going to be clean or pretty, but this needs to be fixed."