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No flag, no anthem, but world track gold for Russia

JAMES ELLINGWORTH
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Qatar Athletics Worlds

Anzhelika Sidorova, center, competing as a neutral athlete, celebrates with Katerina Stefanidi, left, competing as a neutral athlete; and Sandi Morris, right, of the United States; after the women's pole vault final at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019. Sidorova won the gold medal, Morris won the silver and Stefanidi won the bronze. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Three medalists on the victory lap. Only two with flags.

That's the reality for Russian pole vaulter Anzhelika Sidorova after winning gold at the world championships on Sunday, officially as a neutral athlete.

But pole vaulting's a sisterhood and Sidorova's defeated rival, Sandi Morris of the United States, was her strongest advocate despite the doping sanctions on the Russian team.

"Sidorova is a friend of mine and she can't help what's going on politically," Morris said.

"If I were her, I would have done the same thing. Go out there and fight to compete, regardless of what's going on in my country. I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing because the athletes are most important. If she's clean, she's clean, and I honestly believe she is."

Morris' show of affection came despite what she called a "bittersweet" day — big jumps but another silver to go with her second places at the 2016 Olympics and 2017 worlds.

Sidorova competed in a muted blue uniform. Her neutral status, awarded by track's governing body after vetting of her drug-test record, allows her to compete internationally unlike most Russians but bans her from displaying any national symbols. Track has taken the strongest line of any major federation against Russian doping, though Russia's harshest critics would favor a ban against all Russian athletes.

At Monday's medal ceremony the stirring Russian anthem will be replaced by music composed for the IAAF.

"Of course I'm not really comfortable with it all, but I'm so happy. I was just so happy, I didn't really think about it," Sidorova said of her flag-free victory lap. "Gold is gold."

Sidorova and Morris were the standouts from the start, clearing every height up to 4.90 meters on the first attempt. Morris missed her three shots at 4.95, leaving Sidorova one last jump for gold. Her personal best was 4.91 and she hadn't come close in training — even 4.85 had been a challenge — but she sprinted down the runway to soar over the bar.

"I thought that yes, it's the chance you have to take," she said. No female vaulter has cleared 4.95 at a world championships since Russian Yelena Isinbayeva in 2005. Still the world record holder, Isinbayeva is a national hero in Russia and an influential critic of doping investigations into Russian sports.

Sidorova was previously considered a solid performer whose biggest win was the 2014 European title. Being the new Russian pole vault queen hasn't sunk in.

"I'm not sure that I understand I'm the best after Isinbayeva in Russia," she said. "I'm confused when I need to talk about it."

After raising the bar, Sidorova wants to keep her feet on the ground. Next stop Moscow and a long-awaited dessert.

"Back home I've got a can of whipped cream. I bought it before I left, and thought I'll come back and eat it all."

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