Replay of mum's heartache on cards

Sergey Shubenkov en route to winning the men's 110 metres hurdles final at the World Championships in Beijing in August.
Sergey Shubenkov en route to winning the men's 110 metres hurdles final at the World Championships in Beijing in August.PHOTO: REUTERS

BARNAUL (Russia) • World champion Sergey Shubenkov glides over a row of hurdles as he trains for an Olympics he could well miss - in a stuffy facility with a leaky ceiling in his Siberian hometown.

The 25-year-old athlete is a victim of the fallout from the scandal over doping allegations that has seen Russia's track-and-field team hit with a provisional ban that could exclude them from next summer's Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

But what makes that prospect even more galling for him is that, in an unfortunate twist of history, he could become the second member of his family to miss out on a shot at Olympic glory.

His mother, prominent heptathlete Natalya Shubenkova, missed the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics after the Soviet Union and its Communist allies boycotted the Games - payback for the West's snub of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.


It's like there's some kind of karma. I don't think that history will repeat itself, but we have never come this close to that situation.

SERGEY SHUBENKOV on whether, like his mother, he could miss out on an Olympic medal

"It's like there's some kind of karma," he said after a recent training session in the city of Barnaul, where he trains in an old biathlon facility converted into a 60m track.

"I don't think that history will repeat itself, but we have never come this close to that situation."

Standing later beside her trophy case in her apartment, his mother Natalya agreed. "It's really unpleasant to think that this can happen twice in the same family," she said, with 14 Soviet-era medals and brooches pinned to her jacket.

Shubenkov's participation in the Rio Games depends on whether Russia can revamp its scandal-ridden anti-doping system and convince the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to drop its suspension.

Racing in Rio could be redemption for Shubenkov, who was eliminated in the semi-finals of his first Olympics, the 2012 London Games, as a 21-year-old.

"When I would say I didn't make it to the final, people on the streets of London would tell me, 'You're young, next time,'" he said, switching to English to impersonate Londoners. "I hope that this next time will work out."

For Shubenkova, the five-time Soviet champion who now heads her region's athletics federation, seeing her son in Rio would assuage three decades of bitterness after being sidelined from the world's premier sporting event.

The 58-year-old set a national heptathlon record in 1984, the year the Soviet Union and Communist countries snubbed the Olympics. Her 6,854 points stood as the Soviet record for six years.

She won silver at the 1986 European Championships but finished fourth at the 1988 Seoul Games, ending her career without an Olympic medal.

"Everything would have turned out differently if I had competed in LA," she said, convinced that she would have earned a medal then. "Maybe I would have a different job, maybe I would live in a different city or country. But we don't like to think that way in my family."

Shubenkov, who clocked a national record of 12.98sec to win gold in the 110m hurdles at the World Championships in Beijing in August, says he has never used performance-enhancing drugs.

He added that he is regularly subjected to surprise doping tests, sometimes in the form of a knock on the door at 6am.

"He's ready to do a doping test on live television," his mother said, grinning. "Please, go ahead."

The two-time European champion has denounced doping in athletics and lamented that clean Russian athletes are paying the price for their team-mates' transgressions.

"Given that Russian athletes are periodically disqualified for doping, this means that not everything is nice and rosy," Shubenkov said.

"Of course there are lots of dirty athletes and on the Russian national team, too.

"But this is a global problem. Banning everyone is not going to solve it."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2015, with the headline 'Replay of mum's heartache on cards'. Print Edition | Subscribe