By Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Barred from international competition for nearly 17 months because of the Russian doping scandal, high jumper Maria Lasitskene could threaten the world record at the world championships next month.
Lasitskene won gold at the 2015 world championships under her maiden name Kuchina but the doping scandal that was already enveloping the sport in Beijing means she will not be wearing her country's colours when she defends the title in London.
The 24-year-old is one of 47 Russians cleared this year to compete as neutral athletes despite the ongoing suspension of the country's federation over a 2015 report that alleged state-sponsored doping.
This special status has been viewed as an affront to Russian patriotism, prompting some to question the loyalty of the athletes.
The athletes have had to prove to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) that their training environment meets its anti-doping standards, and that appears to have also satisfied Lasitskene's rivals.
"I'm pretty sure there were some rigorous standards for her to have to get through to be able to compete," former world indoor champion Chaunte Lowe told Reuters.
"If she's there, I'm sure she deserves to be there."
Lasitskene said she had not "heard anything bad" and even if some of her rivals have made clear their disgruntlement in private, it has clearly not affected her form.
The former Youth Olympic champion has dominated her event this year and is unbeaten in 19 competitions, indoors and outdoors.
Earlier this month at a Diamond League meet in Lausanne she jumped a personal best of 2.06 metres, three centimetres off the world record set by Bulgaria's Stefka Kostadinova in 1987.
While the Russian authorities have deplored the absence of the country's flag from major track and field meets, they have generally supported the efforts of athletes to compete as neutrals.
"Even if she competes under the neutral flag, everyone perfectly knows that she is from Russia," Yury Borzakovsky, head coach of the national athletics squad, told Reuters.
"And she will prove to the whole world that everything has changed."
Russia has recently ramped up its efforts to overturn the bans against its athletics federation, its Paralympic Committee and its national anti-doping agency RUSADA.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) last month allowed RUSADA to plan and coordinate testing under the supervision of international experts, a key step for the agency to be reinstated.
The Russian government this month approved a plan to curb the use of performance enhancing drugs, while President Vladimir Putin barred dopers and their coaches from receiving Kremlin grants.
The impact of the ban on athletes like Lasitskene is undeniable, however, tearing nearly a year and half out of their careers and preventing them from competing in the Olympics and lucrative Diamond League meetings last year.
"Had there been a 2016 season, maybe the results now would be different," Lasitskene said.
"But that's a 'what-if'. We accepted this situation, trained and didn't give up."
Lasitskene is the only woman who has jumped 2.00 metres this year, clearing the height 10 times since the IAAF allowed her to compete in April.
"We have been advocating that high results can be achieved cleanly," Borzakovsky said.
"Maria is a bright example of this."
Lowe thinks Lasitskene can hit new heights in London, where she will be seeking to join Croatian Blanka Vlasic and South African Hestrie Cloete as the only women to have retained the high jump world title.
"It's like her coming of age party," the American said. "She always showed she had that talent and now she kind of went over the threshold to being known among the top high jumpers of all-time."
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, editing by Nick Mulvenney)