The focus nearly four years ago on the side of a Russian mountain, as the final sled whooshed by, fell to the clock. Katie Uhlaender, a blue-blooded American who had dyed her hair red for the Sochi Olympics, stared at it. Her eyes squinted. Befuddled, she blurted, “I don’t even know how to process that.” Tears were at the ready.
A Russian skeleton athlete named Elena Nikitina slid down the track that night 30-something miles northeast of Sochi, in her home country. Nikitina’s cumulative time over four runs beat Uhlaender’s by 0.04 seconds. That night, Nikitina won bronze, and smiled. That night, Uhlaender won nothing, and cried.
“I don’t want to see someone else’s moment get taken away,” Uhlaender said by phone Tuesday.
Uhlaender is 33 and is preparing for what she realizes is almost certainly her last Olympics.
As of Tuesday, though, she believes her last Olympics will be a clean Olympics. Tuesday evening, she was dining with fellow U.S. skeleton team members Matt Antoine and John Daly in Winterberg, Germany, when they received the news: The International Olympic Committee had barred the Russian federation from the upcoming Pyeongchang Games following what IOC president Thomas Bach described as “an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic Games and sports.”
The Russians, the IOC concluded, systematically doped their athletes for the Sochi Olympics. Nikitina had already been stripped of her medal, one of 11 the Russians had already forfeited in the fallout of the revelations.
And so Uhlaender and Antoine and Daly, unable to contain smiles, high-fived.
“We were like, ‘Holy crap,’” she said. “It actually happened.”
It is Uhlaender’s approach, and it is an admirable one given the next Olympics are two months away, not to lament that night in Russia nearly four years ago. “I don’t blame anyone for my results,” Uhlaender said Tuesday. “I’m not going to waste time worrying about what could have been or what was.”
Let me step in, then. That night in the Russian hills above the Black Sea was the kind of night that makes the Olympics the Olympics. On one level of a twisting set of metal stands and risers stood Noelle Pikus-Pace, an American mother who had missed out on a skeleton medal four years earlier by all of a tenth of a second. She and her husband wanted a larger family. She was going to quit her sport. Yet she came back for one more shot in Sochi. That night, she leaped with joy and smiled the kind of smile that can only be created spontaneously, because she won silver.
Not 100 feet away stood Uhlaender, disbelieving as she looked at the clock. Her own journey was bumpy enough. She dealt with the death of her father, former major league outfielder Ted Uhlaender. She battled a shattered knee and repeated concussions. Yet she had put herself in position for a medal — only to lose it by the beat of a hummingbird’s wing.
So there was everything — the unexpected, unbridled joy and the crushing, knee-buckling disappointment — the Olympics can muster. That Nikitina was stripped of her medal last month, as was countryman Aleksandr Tretyakov, who took gold in men’s skeleton (leaving Antoine with bronze) — yeah, sure, perhaps that rights some wrongs. The IOC said Tuesday that it would arrange medal ceremonies in South Korea for those athletes who wrongly missed out on their celebration.
But those measures, they do not replace the emotions experienced in that place and time. Heartache might have been bliss. Now, we will never know.
“Even her getting a medal retroactively, it’s great,” Antoine said by phone Tuesday. “But the reality is you can’t give her that moment back.”
Still, both Antoine and Uhlaender said they believed that the IOC — against their expectations, honestly — did the right thing Tuesday. About that: There is room here to simultaneously acknowledge the dramatic nature of the action and to cast a skeptical eye at the Russians who do show up in February in South Korea.
The IOC’s decision was to ban the entirety of the would-be Russian delegation, except for those it will allow to compete. The IOC deemed the Russian Olympic Committee guilty of organized, widespread doping of its athletes known by all facets of the country’s sporting infrastructure, except for those who had no knowledge. And by extension, it declared we will not have a repeat of the drug-addled Sochi Games, unless of course we do.
That is the needle Bach and his board tried to thread with this decision, a needle that may have no eye. Russian athletes — clean ones, mind you, as if we know how that will be determined and who we can trust — will be allowed to compete in Pyeongchang. They will not do so in Russian uniforms. The Russian anthem will not play.
But there will be Russian athletes in these Olympics. And we have to trust that an IOC-appointed panel, charged with admitting only the clean athletes, has succeeded in doing so?
“If an athlete, without a doubt, can prove he or she is clean, then they do deserve the right to be there,” Antoine said.
That proof, though, is exceptionally hard. Trust at your own peril.
Uhlaender knows how dicey this is because she has heard from Russian fans of her sport. “So much hate mail, threats,” she said. The upshot: The Russians do not feel their athletes — or their system, or their country — did anything wrong.
“They say, ‘Everyone is doping,’” Uhlaender said. “And I’m like, something had to be done to draw a line and change the culture and show that doping is not OK. … For the IOC to take a hard stand and draw a line, that was the only thing that could be done to re-instill my belief in the Olympic movement.”
Last month, Nikitina won a World Cup race in Park City, Utah. Four days later, when the tour had moved to Whistler, British Columbia, she was stripped of her medal. That week was emotional for Uhlaender, she said. She had made up her mind to think forward, not back, to focus on the possibility of Pyeongchang, not the injustice of Sochi.
But it is hard. The experience, it is not coming back.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be on the podium,” she said. “I raced my heart out. That medal wasn’t mine. It was America’s.”
In two months, she may get a chance to have it all — the medal and the moment. Let’s hope she does.