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Vitaly Mutko: Doping Scandal Puts Putin's Sports Chief In The Spotlight

  • Tom Balmforth

Despite projecting an occasionally clownish persona, Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko is said to be a slick operator who has managed to emerge from scandals unscathed -- at least until now .

Despite projecting an occasionally clownish persona, Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko is said to be a slick operator who has managed to emerge from scandals unscathed -- at least until now .

MOSCOW -- Russia's sports minister hardly cut the figure of a cool crisis manager in May, as he fielded reporters' questions about metastasizing FIFA corruption allegations in a comically accented, almost indecipherable brand of English that left many scratching their heads.

But behind the playfully haphazard image that Vitaly Mutko has cultivated over years at the top of Russian sports is an adept backroom operator who has displayed a knack for emerging unscathed from scandals, those who have followed his career say.

"He looks clownish, but he is much wiser and better in political intrigue than he seems," said Nikolai Petrov, a Moscow-based political analyst.

Mutko, 56, will need all the skills he can muster to control the damage from stunning allegations by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that Russian track and field athletes are systematically engaged in banned, performance-enhancing doping practices.

The report has since prompted the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to suspend Russian athletics' governing body, potentially keeping Russian athletes out of next year's Olympics in Brazil.

The WADA investigators claim to have exposed a "deep-rooted culture of cheating at all levels" -- and Mutko finds himself at the heart of it.

Lead investigator Dick Pound directly named Mutko, alleging he must have been "aware" of the doping practices, and was therefore "complicit" -- a double-blow for Moscow, as the sports minister is also the head of the organization committee for the 2018 soccer World Cup, which Russia is hosting.

World soccer body FIFA's ethics committee is also now conducting an investigation into Mutko's role in the doping scandal, while international soccer figures, such as English Football Association (FA) Chairman Greg Dyke, have called for his suspension from the FIFA executive committee.

The WADA report holds that Mutko's ministry did "nothing to investigate the serious allegations of criminal conduct on the part of the Russian sport officials."

At the same time, Mutko is a key point man for the Russian response to the claims. On November 11, President Vladimir Putin ordered the minister and "all colleagues connected to sport" to pay close attention to the allegations and called for an internal Russian investigation.

Mutko's remarks have mixed defiance and deference.

On November 13, he called WADA's allegations of a widespread, state-backed doping culture in Russian athletics "absurd" – but that Russia is ready to investigate in concert with independent organizations, and to reform its own discredited anti-doping agency or create a new one.

Mutko has sharply criticized calls for the confiscation of Russian medals won at the 2012 London Olympics and said that, if Russian athletes had indeed cheated without being caught in London, then it was the fault of British testing standards he described as "worse than ours."

Putin Ally

Mutko has had key roles in Russian sports – first in football, and then more broadly -- for most of Putin's time in power as president or prime minister.

But he is perhaps best known at home for the heavily accented English, which he unveiled in public in 2010 in a bidding speech as part of Russia's successful campaign to host the 2018 World Cup.

Arousing a blend of endearment and embarrassment from fellow Russians, Mutko's line "let me speak from my heart" quickly became part of the country's political and pop-culture lexicon.

It has contributed to the playful public image that belies his sharp bureaucratic elbows -- one of his key assets, along with his ties to Putin.

"He's not very popular, but he has benefited from his close connections to Putin," said Petrov. "That has been, I think, his major political resource. Since the [February 2014] Sochi Olympics, I think his position has strengthened."

Mutko belongs to the clan of powerful Russians who cut their teeth alongside Putin in the city government led by St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak in the early 1990s – and whose careers took off after Boris Yeltsin stepped down and handed Putin the presidency on the last day of 1999.

When Sobchak lost his job in a 1996 election, Mutko left city hall -- where he had been in charge of health care, culture and sports -- and focused on the St. Petersburg-based soccer club Zenit, where he had become president the year before.

When Putin first ran for office in a March 2000 election, Mutko was one of Putin's "trusted individuals"-- representatives formally given the right to debate and campaign on behalf of a presidential candidate.

His career went national soon after Putin's victory.

In 2001, Mutko founded the Russian Premier League -- a separate entity which organizes and governs the top flight of Russian club soccer -- and became head of it. He also served as the head of the Russian Football Union, the country's governing body for soccer, and became a member of the upper house of parliament in 2003.

When Putin took a break from the presidency in 2008, starting a four-year stint as prime minister to preserve his power without violating the constitution, he made Mutko his sports minister – a post he has held ever since.

In September, Mutko was for a second time elected president of the Russian Football Union with unanimous support after his only rival in the race pulled out and pledged to vote for Mutko in return for the sports minister's political backing elsewhere.

Since the doping scandal broke, Putin has signaled support for Mutko by publicly ordering him to lead the Russian investigation.

At a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on November 11, Putin also echoed Mutko's statement that punishment should target individuals but not lead to a blanket ban on Russia -- an approach that puts athletes at risk but could protect officials and the government itself.

Breakfast Bill

During his long stint at the top of Russian sport, Mutko has had an uncanny ability to weather scandals.

"He's certainly a survivor," said Marc Bennetts, a Moscow-based journalist and author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People's Game. "He's been at the highest level of Russian sport officialdom since the early 2000s, and emerged unscathed through repeated match-fixing scandals."

Mutko was at one point forced to perform an about-face when he had backed moves to sell the broadcasting rights of Russian soccer matches to NTV Plus, a pay-to-view channel. Mutko nixed the idea after Putin publicly derided the broadcasting deal as being made at the expense of the regular viewers who wanted to watch games for free.

At the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, Mutko was assailed for clocking up exorbitant hotel expenses of over $32,000. A report drafted by the Russian Audit Chamber said Mutko had expensed 97 breakfasts to his hotel room in a 20-day period, at a cost of $4,500 to Russian taxpayers.

Two years later, at the London Olympics, Mutko faced calls for his resignation as Russia got off to a strikingly slow start on the medals table. The Russian team went on to claim fourth place at the London Games, which the WADA report said were effectively "sabotaged" by the participation of Russian athletes who should have been banned.

Speaking to the Kommersant newspaper at the time, Mutko said the calls for his resignation were "rather bloodthirsty" and protested he had done all he could for team Russia to secure a dignified medal haul.

"I am the minister of sport – I don't swim, I don't shoot – my main task is to create the conditions," he said. "Today all the conditions have been created."

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at