When the Australian squad takes to the velodrome in Hong Kong this week for the UCI Track Cycling World Championships, Shane Perkins will be a notable absence. The Brisbane-based rider was once the country’s sprint king, with past successes including two world titles, gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and bronze at the London Olympics. But Perkins will never again pull on the Australian colours. In February, he defected to Russia.
“If you had told me at the beginning of last year that I would be Russian in 2017, I would have laughed you out of the room,” Perkins says. Measured and articulate, the 30-year-old openly recounts how casual locker-room chat led to a new nationality.
“Over the past seven years I have been keirin racing in Japan, and became great mates with Russian cyclist Denis Dmitriev,” Perkins explains. “Denis knew my story – battling to make the Olympic squad for Rio de Janeiro but not getting much support from Australia – and was always astounded. I even considered retiring and going into coaching, because I could not see a way forward with the Australian team.
“Denis had always joked that if I became Russian I would make it to Rio,” he says. “Then in September we discussed it more seriously and thought maybe it was not a bad idea. They needed a third rider for the team sprint and someone to ride the keirin. It is my dream to go to another Olympics. I am only 30 and still have plenty of years left in me, so I thought ‘why not?’”
Perkins’ pragmatic decision to accept citizenship of a country with which he had no previous family connection was always going to generate headlines. While Cycling Australia publicly backed the switch, behind closed doors many were shocked.
“The reaction has been very positive,” says Perkins with just a hint of surprise. “Australia has poached many Russian athletes over the years in a range of sports, but it is rare that you see an Australian heading off to represent another country. The cycling community understands the story and my desire to keep riding – this is an opportunity to do that.”
There is no way to sugar-coat it. In 2015 I was basically told that the better option would be to retire
The “story” to which Perkins refers is his controversial non-selection for the Rio Olympics. Despite entering 2016 as the reigning keirin national champion, Perkins had already lost his athlete scholarship and was then not invited to Olympic training camps. While he muses “it is what it is – they decided not to take me [to Rio] and I have to cop that on the chin,” the disappointment remains apparent.
“There is no way to sugar-coat it,” says Perkins. “After the World Championships in 2015 I was basically told that the better option would be to retire. I was then blocked from going to any World Cups, even though I offered to fund my own way. We had enough spots and at first I was told that [Cycling Australia] could not afford to send me. I said I would pay to keep my Rio Olympic dream alive, and then I was given a straight no.” Cycling Australia declined to comment.
At the time, Perkins’ axing from the track squad was attributed to a string of poor results, injuries and a decision to prioritise the development of younger riders. Political intrigue swirls though, and Perkins alludes to the sacking of his coach and organisational mismanagement of his rehabilitation as other factors that saw him excluded from Cycling Australia’s High Performance Unit.
While he is quick to acknowledge the support he has received over the past decade Perkins is looking forward to a fresh start. “I have a clean slate to prove myself to Russia,” he says. “There is no history like there was with the Australian team.”
Yet a different cloud will linger over Perkins’ time in Russia: the spectre of doping. Allegations of systemic state-sponsored cheating among Russian athletes refuse to subside, and while these have not directly implicated the cycling program, it remains a sensitive topic given the sport’s recent history.
“Obviously [the doping scandal] was something on my mind,” says Perkins. “It helped that I knew Denis so well and trusted him, his coach and his support staff. For me there was no question about the integrity of the program. I also met with the Russian Cycling Federation and we talked about these issues. I had confidence that they were all about clean sport and supporting their athletes to get the best performance in the right way.
“Who knows what is and is not factual?” Perkins says of the state-sponsored doping claims. “I am not saying nothing went wrong, it is concerning. But these things tend to happen all over the world. It is not just Russia, there has been a lot of talk about the British and TUEs [therapeutic use exemptions]. If you ask me, that is just as bad, although a doctor is writing a prescription it is still doping if a rider is not supposed to have it. Even Australia is not immune. I think sometimes everything gets pinned on Russia.”
I will be bringing back a gold medal for Russia and Australia. That is how I see it
Over the next three years, Perkins will split his time between Brisbane, Moscow and Japan. He has begun learning Russian – “the alphabet is a tricky one” – and is eager to begin the journey towards Tokyo 2020 with a return to racing in July. “It is a new experience and everything is that little bit more exciting,” he says. “I feel like an 18-year-old heading off to the Australian Institute of Sport again.”
The 2020 Olympics will have particular significance for the Perkins family, as father Daryl rode for Australia at the last summer Games held in Japan. Indeed there is a touch of irony about the prospect of Perkins junior representing Russia at Tokyo 2020 – Perkins senior was knocked out of quarter-finals in 1964 by the Soviet Union.
While he admits that “it would have been great to chase a gold medal in Australian colours,” Perkins is sanguine. “Russia has given me this opportunity and I will be working my hardest to win gold in Tokyo,” he says. “When we do that, I will be bringing back a gold medal for Russia and Australia. That is how I see it. Whether other people see it in the same way is up to them.”