Athletes, others who raise doping concerns in sports often left whistling into the wind

Exposing the anti-doping crisis (6:59)

American long-distance runner Kara Goucher and former Jamaican anti-doping official Renee Anne Shirley share their stories and expose corruption in an anti-doping system. (6:59)

The Russians who set fire to the walls of their country's sports fortress insist on cooking dinner. Yuliya Stepanova slides chicken into the oven and whips mashed potatoes in a miniscule galley kitchen. Vitaly Stepanov seats a guest in a worn armchair wedged sideways next to a table for two. On the floor in front of the television, their 2-year-old son, Robert, spills Legos from a bin, cooing in two languages about cartoon dinosaurs and trains.

The Stepanovs speak to the world from this one-bedroom apartment in a featureless, dingy building whose location they prefer to keep undisclosed. They moved here this past December, unpacking the same four suitcases they carried when they fled Russia for Germany the year before. Among their furnishings are a dresser and toys discarded by other residents near a dumpster in the parking lot.

They find themselves here after exposing the depths of organized doping and corruption in Russian sport. In the process, they inadvertently revealed the World Anti-Doping Agency as toothless when confronted with damning information about a superpower.

"Sometimes maybe I thought it would be best for everybody if I just disappear,'' said Vitaly Stepanov, 34.

Vitaly first provided WADA with evidence implicating the Russian track and field establishment in organized doping and cover-ups six years ago. He and his wife, an elite runner who made secret recordings that helped unmask the system, told their story publicly on German television in 2014, triggering a formal investigation.

A geyser of information has erupted since, yet Olympic sports officials have not ruled out Russia's participation at the Rio 2016 Games less than two months from now. The IAAF Council will vote Friday in Vienna on whether to reinstate the Russian track federation, and the International Olympic Committee meets June 21 to discuss athlete eligibility.

The risks the couple took represent an extreme example and make WADA's years of inaction stand out in unflattering contrast. But the plodding timetable, uncertain outcome and personal sacrifices lived by the Stepanovs are not unique to their claims. Athletes and others who challenge the sporting status quo with discomfiting information often dangle in the wind, isolated and buffeted by the powerful forces of geopolitics, money, loyalty and self-preservation.

"Why should they hang themselves out there for absolutely nothing?'" Philippa LeVine, retired U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent

U.S. distance runner Kara Goucher and her husband, Adam, publicly alleged unethical practices in a training group backed by global monolith Nike. Three years after the couple first approached anti-doping authorities, no charges or sanctions have been forthcoming, and few have openly backed them. Former Jamaican anti-doping administrator Reneé Anne Shirley received threats and had to relocate after speaking out in 2013 about testing lapses in her own country.

Anti-doping leaders increasingly tout investigations and inside information as crucial weapons. Some countries have legislation enabling them to work with police and prosecutors to support whistleblowers. But for the most part, all anti-doping entities have to offer are shorter suspensions and the chance to clear one's conscience. That doesn't help those facing real danger, or those who want to report wrongs but haven't committed any.

In the criminal justice world, law enforcement officials have a far wider range of practical tools they can use to encourage informants to cooperate: Extensive resources to corroborate their stories. Protection and relocation. Contracts and monetary payments.

Few would-be whistleblowers in Olympic sports have much of a cushion to land on when they leap.

"Why should they hang themselves out there for absolutely nothing?'' said Philippa LeVine, an author and retired U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration special agent, who spent 25 years in the field cultivating relationships with informants. "No one's going to do something for free unless they've just had it, and that's rare. Their livelihoods are up for grabs.''

And occasionally, their lives.

THE CREDIBILITY OF international sport is under siege in part thanks to the epically strange love story between the Stepanovs. He was an anti-doping idealist. She was an 800-meter runner who doped because it was expected of her. They married two months after they met in 2009. He informed on a fraudulent Russian system that included her and others. They became estranged. She got busted. He ultimately converted her to his cause.

Yuliya, 29, from Kursk near the Ukraine border, is lean, luminous and soft-spoken. Vitaly, a slender native of Chelyabinsk with cropped brown hair and a winsome face, emanates resolve but also frequently cracks jokes at himself and the absurdity of his situation.

They keep a very low profile about where they live. There's a lot of anger back home. Two former bosses of the Russian anti-doping agency where Vitaly once worked died within two weeks of each other in February. The second death, in particular, raised eyebrows. "The animosity of athletes, coaches and sports officials in our home country continues to be unbearable,'' the couple wrote in a letter to the IAAF Council in March. "Russian social media are full of rant and hatred against us, not only from the general public, but also from many elite athletes."

The Stepanovs strive for a slice of normalcy in semi-hiding. Their little boy goes to day care with financial help from a private benefactor in Europe. Yuliya attends twice-weekly English classes. Vitaly accompanies her when she trains on a local high school track, arriving when the oval is empty first thing in the morning. They are in the country legally but don't have work visas, subsisting largely on honoraria from speaking fees and the generosity of friends -- including a holiday collection by WADA staff members. They accepted a $30,000 loan payment from the agency, left it untouched and recently repaid it.

Vitaly's first contact with WADA was in 2008, after he started a new job at the newly formed Russian Anti-Doping Agency. As part of a WADA educational delegation at the Beijing Games later that year, he wandered between events wide-eyed, happy to travel on official transportation and sample VIP buffets.

But Yuliya's frank debriefings during the couple's courtship and early marriage, and his own observations on the job, shattered his illusions about Russian sport and drug testing. By the time Vitaly arrived for another WADA assignment at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, he was ready to enlist against the home team.

Vitaly met with high-ranking WADA officials in Vancouver and again in 2011 the weekend of the Boston Marathon. For nearly four years, he described doping and fraud in Russian sports in dozens of reports sent to WADA.

One October 2010 email he shared with Outside the Lines was a four-page, single-spaced catalog of horrors for anyone in the anti-doping business. It included details of Yuliya's doping regimen and accounts of bribery, kickbacks and advance notice of testing -- and his ambivalence about informing on his own wife.

Vitaly continued to correspond with WADA after he was fired in a RUSADA restructuring in late 2011 and eventually volunteered to gather corroborating evidence. In 2013, Yuliya -- by then suspended herself -- contributed a 10-page narrative about how doping had permeated her career. She secretly recorded her coach.

The couple assumed WADA was compiling a dossier.

Nothing happened.

WADA leaders contend they were stymied in the Stepanovs' case by a code that did not allow full-blown investigations at the time, and legally constrained from forwarding evidence to any government except Russia, which would have compromised the couple's safety. During those years of inertia, Kara Goucher and many other athletes would have been keenly interested in what the Stepanovs knew.

THE FRONT YARD of the Gouchers' new house in Boulder, Colorado, was a sea of mud and construction scrap this spring, a metaphor for their lives these past few years: A fresh start with some very visible loose ends.

"There are times I just want to move on,'' Kara Goucher said. "But you know what? I can't move on, 'cause it's not over yet, and I'm not going to back down. I know what I saw and it was cheating. Carrying that secret was killing my career, destroying my love for the sport. I do feel free.''

Like the Stepanovs, Goucher, 37, knows what it's like to wait and wonder if her words will have any impact. She and her husband, a former elite distance runner, first contacted the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in early 2013 to describe practices within the Nike Oregon Project training group they considered questionable.

Alberto Salazar, the ex-marathon icon and coach who runs the Nike Oregon Project, issued a two-part, 11,000-plus-word response to claims the Gouchers and others made in a June 2015 ProPublica/BBC report, denying that anything illicit or unethical had taken place under his watch. At the February U.S. Olympic marathon trials won by his protégé, Galen Rupp, Salazar said he was "moving forward" and getting his athletes ready for the summer.

USADA declined comment on the status of the investigation. A Nike spokesman did not respond to a request to interview Salazar or confirm the company's understanding of where the probe stands.

Sources with direct knowledge of the investigation told Outside the Lines that portions of the case have been referred to federal authorities and others to different bodies that could impose professional sanctions on coaches and physicians.

USADA reinterviewed the Gouchers last month, the couple said. But for now, everyone involved remains in suspended animation. Kara wants to encourage athletes to speak up when they see something wrong, but she doesn't want to sugarcoat what it has been like to plant a red flag and stand by it.

The Gouchers understood they were firing a slingshot at a coaching giant in Salazar -- and by extension at Nike, the dominant commercial presence in track and field, whose reach extended to every part of Kara's professional life as the primary financial backer of USA Track and Field and sponsor of numerous events.

Kara was disenchanted with Nike on several fronts, but still had to fight the sense she was betraying Salazar, once a father figure: "He had taken care of me from an NCAA champion who then fell apart and struggled, back to being who I always thought I could be,'' she said, tears welling in her eyes. "I didn't want him to know what I was suspicious of.''

It's the classic dilemma for sports whistleblowers. Their accounts typically impugn people close to them -- teammates, trainers, coaches and other entourage members whose approval and support once meant everything. When the Gouchers boarded the flight from Portland, Oregon, to Colorado Springs for their first meeting with USADA in February 2013, they had left the Oregon Project training group, but she was still under contract to Nike. She was the family breadwinner, and she was about to cast that bread on some very choppy waters.

In an interview with Outside the Lines, Kara recapped her previous accounts of the growing dismay she felt when she returned from a maternity hiatus in 2011. She said she never took or was pressured to take performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids or EPO, but she balked when Salazar suggested she take a teammate's thyroid medication, then obtained a supply for her himself. Intravenous fluids, therapeutic use exemptions for medication, syringes in the refrigerator "for allergy shots" and testosterone cream packets lying out in the open -- all were rationalized, but appeared to her to bend or break rules. (Salazar specifically disputed these accounts in his open letter.)

Reading cyclist Tyler Hamilton's 2012 doping expose, "The Secret Race,'' further strengthened Kara's conviction that she'd seen inappropriate manipulation and subterfuge.

The Gouchers say it was made clear to them in the first meeting that USADA was already investigating their former training group. The information percolated unseen until two years later, when Adam and former NOP assistant coach and sports science adviser Steve Magness agreed to go on the record for a collaborative report by ProPublica and the BBC.

Kara elected to join them at the last minute. She wanted others to gather the nerve to venture out, to see that an athlete could take the heat and continue racing. USADA officials had been straightforward with the Gouchers: If they elected to speak publicly, "they wouldn't be able to help us or protect us,'' Kara said. After the sitdown, she and Adam installed security cameras around the house they were renting and waited for the story to post.

The response took its toll. Some fellow runners and former Nike teammates thanked her privately, she said, but several said they weren't willing to do what she had done. (Former Nike athletes Josh Rohatinsky and Lauren Fleshman, who like Goucher is now sponsored by the small woman-owned apparel company Oiselle, were exceptions, adding their own observations and support to Goucher's account.)

The reaction online included "really vile things,'' Kara said. None of her current sponsors dropped her, but a $60,000 deal in the works fell through. At the U.S. championships later that month, she ran a fatigued, subpar 5,000-meter event and defended herself in an emotional session with reporters afterward. She later announced she would not discuss anything that could be construed as new evidence.

Kara is more than a runner now -- she's a politicized figure in her sport, and there are days she has regretted sticking her neck out. She has repeatedly said she's confident USADA is doing everything within its power, but is frustrated that other athletes are still reluctant to speak up.

"I'm disappointed, obviously, but I don't hate them,'' she said. "I understand. It's scary.''

She also had to deal with the predictable suspicion that she had doped herself. "A big fear of never wanting to come forward is that people will question everything that I did,'' she said. "And that'll keep you silent, everything you've worked so hard for.

"But I can't prove it to anybody, you know? I know what I did and what I didn't do.''

Kara continues to train with University of Colorado coaches Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs. At the Olympic marathon trials in Los Angeles, she ran a strong tactical race but finished fourth, one place short of a berth for Rio. A knee injury thwarted her hopes of qualifying for the U.S. team on the track next month.

"Coming forward did not help my running,'' she said. "It made it a bit of a circus for a while. But the only reason I was even able to make a shot at making the Olympic team is because I unburdened myself. So it was worth it for me.

"The hardest part of all this is that I don't want to be jaded. I love running. It's done so much for me, and I believe there are good people out there trying to perform the right way.''

RENEE ANNE SHIRLEY completely underestimated the repercussions her candor would have.

"I didn't think I had much to say that was of interest to the rest of the world,'' she said. "That one article has changed my life.''

Shirley, 60, spoke to Outside the Lines at an inn surrounded by lush mountains some distance from Kingston, Jamaica, the city she left because she feared for her personal safety. She now makes her home elsewhere on the island and described her decision to move and narrow her life as "reducing my personal footprint.''

Her August 2013 op-ed column in Sports Illustrated laid out what she had previously addressed only within Jamaica -- a glaring five-month gap before the London 2012 Summer Games during which only one athlete was tested out of competition.

As a government adviser to the Minister of Sport, Shirley devoted years to building the legal and administrative foundation for the Jamaican Anti-Doping Commission. Enlisted to serve as JADCO's executive director just before the London Games, Shirley was appalled when she reviewed records showing a testing lapse that had left dozens of athletes open to speculation.

There were many reasons -- a change in government, outdated test kits, personnel shortages and poor auditing procedures -- but Shirley knew the world would regard them as feeble excuses and the episode as indefensible. "The island needs a world-class anti-doping operation to go with its achievements on the track,'' she wrote in SI. "I urged the authorities to get more serious about anti-doping before a scandal hit us.''

The story earned her widespread admiration among athletes and anti-doping advocates elsewhere in the world, but at home, "It got really, really ugly,'' she said. Occasional supportive messages on social media couldn't pay her bills when work dried up, or soothe her jangled nerves when the phone rang in the middle of the night with anonymous threats. Talk radio simmered with resentment. JADCO's then-board chairman, Dr. Herb Elliott, told The Associated that Press Shirley was a liar, "a bit demented" and a "Judas.''

The following spring, she traveled to London to speak at an anti-doping conference. Organizers, she said, took her aside and told her that Jamaican authorities had tried to discourage the United Kingdom from issuing her a travel visa.

Shirley realized she had "disturbed a brand" -- not a shoe brand, but the national pride in Jamaica's accomplished sprinters.

"A lot of people felt I was saying that our athletes are dirty, and in a sense, what I was doing was speaking out against them,'' she said. "I thought I was speaking for them and for the system."

Shirley also faulted WADA and the IAAF for failing to ride herd on Jamaica's test numbers before London. After the SI story was published, WADA affirmed Shirley by ordering an extraordinary audit. Elliott and the entire board resigned at the end of 2013, and JADCO partnered with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport for 15 months in 2014-15 to develop best practices in testing, staff training, education and guidelines.

That progress is gratifying to Shirley, who now works as an independent financial consultant. But she continues to offer relentless critiques of the global system on Twitter and elsewhere from her outsider's perch "underneath my little coconut tree,'' as she fondly puts it.

"In this big business [of global sport], they don't truly want you to find out,'' she said. "Whistleblowing is not something that anybody wants. Nobody wants you to speak out. Everybody wants a system, including the sponsors and the public, everybody wants the status quo to remain."

Shirley said whistleblowers need a hand extended to them and a safe place to debrief.

"You need to have something independent,'' she said. "I think the governments themselves have a role to play that they have really reneged on. There are moments and times where people may need to be outside of their country. Take the Stepanovs.''

WADA "operates like the United Nations,'' she said. "It has to. You're trying to get all the countries in the world to agree to a code. It's going to have limits to what it can and cannot do. You need to have a body that the people feel that they can talk to. Right now, what are they doing? They're talking to media.''

University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke, who teaches sports governance, agreed, calling the Stepanovs "Exhibit A in the case against the current system.'' Pielke said a competent, independent investigative entity could fill the void, but only if there was sufficient political will to ensure that it wasn't "just another unaccountable sports body."

AT A WADA symposium in Lausanne, Switzerland, in March, incoming director general Olivier Niggli told Outside the Lines the agency is committed to revamping its investigation department and creating guidelines for handling whistleblowers.

"I think we need the athletes of the world to know that we're interested in what they have to say, and if they want to come and talk we'll put the framework around that to protect them, which will help them if need be,'' Niggli said.

"We're not going to let that sit at the bottom of a drawer without doing anything with it.''

Outside the Lines obtained a draft of a proposed whistleblower policy circulated among WADA's executive committee and foundation board members in May. It states that a secure web-based platform for informants to contact the agency is under development. Potential criminal activity would be reported to the international clearinghouse Interpol.

Legal help could be made available in some instances, but the draft specifies that WADA "cannot offer whistleblowers any physical protection, or residency in foreign countries, career opportunities, cover up or expunge any criminal offences or any other support that is beyond the scope of WADA's Code of Ethics.''

How much can any paper policy overcome athletes' reluctance to break omertà, the organized crime term for collective silence that has been co-opted by the sports world? Floyd Landis isn't optimistic.

The 2006 Tour de France winner was stripped of his title for doping and maintained his innocence for four years before launching a confessional broadside that helped defrock Lance Armstrong. Landis said he doesn't think his actions merit the honorific of "whistleblower," even though it is inextricable from his name now.

"I didn't just stand up and say, 'This needs to get fixed,'' he said.

In 2010, the 40-year-old Landis filed what is commonly known as a whistleblower complaint against Armstrong and his business associates under the federal False Claims Act. The U.S. Department of Justice intervened on Landis' side, and he stands to receive a portion of any monetary settlement or trial award. The premise of the suit, which Armstrong has contested vigorously, is that $32 million in sponsorship money shelled out by the U.S. Postal Service was misused by a cycling team that doped to win.

Landis said radical changes in anti-doping jurisprudence would be needed to induce more athletes to come forward, including the option of complete immunity in some instances.

But Landis said the biggest problem for anti-doping efforts is that many athletes view the IOC, WADA and individual sports federations as a single sprawling clique with overlapping leadership -- current WADA president Craig Reedie is an IOC vice president -- and vested interests. "In an athlete's mind, these are all the same people,'' he said.

And athletes will always find it daunting to cast aside old loyalties and contemplate collateral damage to friends and teammates.

"Ideally, I wish I didn't know anything about anybody else besides myself,'' said Landis' contemporary Tyler Hamilton, whose best-selling book constituted another form of whistleblowing in its personal, graphic detail. "It would have made it a lot easier. I wish I didn't have to name names. But I felt like I had to.

"I understand you don't want to rat out your friends, but the system, if these walls stay intact, it's gonna continue. We have to go a little bit deeper. It's not like doping's gone away.''

Hamilton realizes that sounds easy for him to say now. His choices gave him a privileged life during the most productive years of his career. Like Landis, he rode for Armstrong's teams in their heyday, became a team leader himself, and ardently fought his doping case. His lies ended only when he was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury.

Now Hamilton has found a second vocation as an anti-doping evangelist, traveling around the country and the world to speak to diverse groups that include elementary school classes, bike clubs, elite junior athletes, and anti-doping agencies and conferences as far away as New Zealand.

"Once I dropped the ego, just telling the truth out loud, it opened up the gates for everything,'' he said. "It was almost spiritual. Everything changed.''

VITALY STEPANOV, a true believer, still loves sports. He would someday like to go back to work in the anti-doping field. He respects people he met in the trenches at WADA.

He hopes that respect is returned by the IAAF and the IOC. The Stepanovs have petitioned the leaders of those organizations, asking that Yuliya be allowed to race in Rio as an unaffiliated athlete. (WADA president Reedie wrote to IAAF chief Sebastian Coe in January, asking the federation to explore all possibilities for Yuliya to compete.)

On Friday, the IAAF Council will vote on whether to reinstate the Russian track federation; Yuliya is ineligible as long as Russia is. It is a convoluted form of double jeopardy, given her role in uncovering the information that prompted that suspension. If Russia gets a reprieve, the hostile climate would prevent her from running for her native country.

The Stepanovs wrote to the IAAF Council in March:

"We would like to apologize to clean athletes around the world for the mistakes we had done in the past. We were cheats, but we hope we deserve the right to change, to admit our mistakes, and to compete clean. ... We helped to uncover systematic doping in our home country and now, we kindly ask you to help us, by making it possible that Yuliya ... is not prevented from competing as a result of us trying to help athletics to become a clean and fair sport."

They never expected to be at this juncture.

Discouraged by official inaction in the fall of 2013, Vitaly and Yuliya had given up on what he calls "doping fighting" during the third trimester of her pregnancy.

They wanted their baby to be born in the United States, to have dual citizenship and a choice, someday. Vitaly read the rules, bought cheap plane tickets and researched birthing centers in the Allentown area, where he went to school and still had friends. Yuilya was in her 32nd week when they embarked, carrying proof they had enough money to pay the medical bills. Robert was born in November 2013.

The couple brought their son home two months later, midway through the Sochi Winter Games. They were convinced a rigged system was behind Russian performances and the country's place atop the overall medals table, but they were done with their underground resistance, ready to move on with life and raise their baby boy.

A month later, WADA's then-chief investigator Jack Robertson emailed them. They met with him, he persuaded them to talk to a journalist, and history took a sharp turn.

Yuliya's English has improved, but she's still shy about speaking her second language, especially when it comes to emotional matters. She sits at their cramped table and listens to the question: How does it feel to be better known for being an ad hoc undercover agent than an athlete?

She bows her head in concentration. Vitaly translates. When they interact, an invisible lariat seems to loop and settle around them. They are the only two people in that space.

"You have one dream and then life happens,'' Yuliya said, through her husband. "For Russia, I'm a traitor and being hated by all the Russian athletes. I hope some people in the world feel something different.''

Investigative reporter T.J. Quinn of ESPN's Enterprise and Investigative Unit contributed to this story.