MOSCOW -- Russian media dubbed it the "alternative" Olympics, but the sparsely-attended tournament held at a Moscow stadium on July 28 was little consolation for Russian athletes banned from competing in Rio.
As the world's finest athletes converge on Brazil for the 2016 Olympic Games, more than 50 members of Russia's almost entirely banned track-and-field team were among 150 competing at the much more modest Stars-2016 tournament.
Played out in front of a sparse crowd made up mostly of friends and family, the event seemed more designed as a spectacle for the assembled journalists, who listened as competitors and politicians vented their anguish at the crisis consuming Russian athletics.
In the wake of allegations of state-sponsored doping that emerged last year, a total of 115 Russian athletes have been formally excluded from the Olympic Games that begin on August 5, although the International Olympic Committee recently decided against imposing a blanket ban on Team Russia.
Just hours before Stars-2016 got under way, dozens of athletes who were cleared to compete boarded planes in Moscow to fly to Brazil, accompanied to the airport by crowds of well-wishers.
But even this public support was tainted by a Gazeta.ru report, which alleged that the crowd had been paid to attend -- a tactic known as "massovka" that is often employed to pump up attendance at pro-Kremlin rallies.
At the tournament in Moscow, two-time world champion pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva cut a mournful figure dressed in black on a baking hot summer's day. She said she would not be taking part because she had spent her energy trying to prove her innocence in the doping scandal instead of training.
On July 29, Isinbayeva, who has never tested positive for banned substances, said her application for special dispensation was rejected by the International Association of Athletics Federations.
Cheering For Klishina
Some athletes put on a brave face and tried to see a silver lining in the doping crisis, while others stuck to the mantra that the ban was the result of a shadowy global conspiracy to get Russia excluded.
"We're going to watch and cheer for Klishina," Vera Rebrik, a javelin thrower, said referring to long jumper Darya Klishina, who is the only track and field athlete competing for Russia in Rio. "I hope she'll get revenge for the whole of track and field!"
Russian long jumper Darya Klishina (file photo)
Rebrik managed to smile several times during her interview, prompting a Russian journalist to ask her how she was so positive given the circumstances. "What are we going to do -- cry? It's too late to be upset and cry," she replied.
Javelin thrower Dmitry Tarabin, meanwhile, talked up the "celebratory" atmosphere of Stars-2016, saying: "My mood has gotten a bit better."
Nikolai Valuyev, a towering former heavyweight boxer and lawmaker with the ruling United Russia party, was defiant and denounced the ban on Russian athletes as an elaborate foreign plot.
"It is really deplorable that our guys, with the exception of Darya Klishina, have not gone to the Olympics,” Valuyev said.
“What's even more deplorable is that they didn't go simply because of political games," he added. "Everyone understands this perfectly well. We've come here today to support them. We'll see how ready they are and how ready they are to compete at the actual Olympics."
The position taken by Valuyev appears to be common in Russia. A poll by the independent Levada Center found that the overwhelming majority of Russians do not believe the findings of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which first made the allegations of state sponsored doping.
According to the poll, just 14 percent believe Russians were taking banned substances, while 38 percent said they found WADA's allegations "not very convincing" and a further 33 percent said they were "completely unconvincing."