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Russia Makes Last-Minute Moves To Avoid Olympic Ban, Prove Athletes Are Drug-Free

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right), shown here with Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko (left) at the 2014 Winter Olympics, has said the banned drug meldonium "has nothing to do with doping."
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right), shown here with Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko (left) at the 2014 Winter Olympics, has said the banned drug meldonium "has nothing to do with doping."

With the Summer Olympics swiftly approaching, Russia is undertaking measures to repair its battered reputation after many of its elite athletes were found to have used performance-enhancing drugs, seemingly with the connivance of the state.

Russian officials said on April 20 that two World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) experts will be based in Moscow to monitor the reestablishment of Russia's discredited anti-doping agency as the country scrambles to get a ban on its track-and-field athletes removed so they can compete in August's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

"The [WADA] officials will be there to ensure Russia's anti-doping process is independent of outside influence -- without government influence," WADA spokesman Ben Nichols told RFE/RL.

Removing the Russian government from this aspect of its sports empire could prove a difficult task.

A WADA independent commission issued a report on November 9 charging widespread, systemic, and "state-sponsored" doping among Russian athletes.

As a result, Russian anti-doping agency RUSADA was decertified and its drug-testing lab deemed inadequate.

The report's findings also led the IAAF, the world governing body of athletics, to ban all Russian track-and-field athletes from international competition. Russian officials criticized the IAAF ruling but pledged to have the prohibition on its athletes lifted before the Olympics, which open on August 5.

IAAF President Sebastian Coe said the progress made by Russian officials in its anti-doping program would be evaluated at a meeting next month before a final decision on Russia's participation in the Olympics is made at an IAAF meeting in Vienna in June.

Since the WADA report was made public, dozens of Russian athletes in sports ranging from shooting to ice hockey have been suspended or stripped of championships and Olympic medals for failing drug tests. Many of the most recent cases -- including of world tennis star Maria Sharapova -- have involved athletes caught using the blood-flow-boosting drug meldonium.

Changed Attitudes?

Russian officials have since grudgingly agreed to recommendations made by WADA and an IAAF task force for reestablishing the country's anti-doping procedures and RUSADA.

"Things have taken a bit longer [in Russia] than we would have liked...but we are moving in the right direction now," WADA's Nichols said of the agreement to base two WADA officials in Moscow.

He said WADA and Russian sports officials will meet in Moscow on April 26-27 to finalize the details of the agreement.

Tennis star Maria Sharapova announcing she failed a drug test after the Australian Open at a press conference on March 7.
Tennis star Maria Sharapova announcing she failed a drug test after the Australian Open at a press conference on March 7.

"We are waiting for WADA experts, who will be working in RUSADA on a permanent basis for one or two years," Natalia Zhelanova, an anti-doping adviser to Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, said on April 20.

She added that the experts "will be the guarantors of our anti-doping system's transparency."

Mutko said that "Russia is implementing all necessary reforms" and is "100 percent supportive of WADA's stamp out cheating."

That statement is a departure for Mutko, who initially was a staunch defender of Russia's anti-doping procedures, denied state involvement in athletes' drug use, and accused international sport and anti-doping bodies of bias against Russia and its athletes.

"Whatever we [Russians] do, everything is bad," he said on November 9, after the WADA report was released.

Mutko, a longtime associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin from St. Petersburg, was directly fingered for involvement in the doping of Russian athletes by WADA investigative commission Chairman Dick Pound, who said it was "impossible" for Mutko not to have known about the extensive drug use.

'Too Little, Too Late'?

Zhelanova, who has worked for several years as an official involved in Russia's drug-testing system, said, "We are urgently working to ensure sport in Russia is clean and fair."

She added that Russian officials "understand that we have to regain the international community's trust" and suggested RUSADA would regain its accreditation by the end of this year.

All drug testing of athletes in Russia has been done by the British anti-doping agency UKAD since February due to RUSADA's decertification.

Russia's drug-testing lab in Moscow had its accreditation revoked on April 15.

IAAF President Sebastian Coe (file photo)
IAAF President Sebastian Coe (file photo)

WADA had accused drug-testing officials at the lab of the "malicious destruction" of more than 1,400 drug-test samples right before a WADA investigative visit.

In addition to the stationing of WADA officials in Moscow, the BBC reported on April 20 that Russian sports officials were also pledging that every track-and-field athlete who would compete in the Summer Olympics in Rio would undergo at least three drug tests conducted by independent agencies.

But Russia's last-ditch attempts to convince international bodies that its athletes are clean may be a case of "too little, too late."

Putin himself dismissed the most recent meldonium scandal -- in which more Russian athletes have been implicated than from any other country -- as concerning a drug that "has nothing to do with doping."

IAAF chief Coe said in March that although Russia had made some progress, "it still had a long way to go" before the ban on its athletics competitors would be lifted.

German TV channel ARD, which has thoroughly documented doping by Russian athletes in recent years, said in a follow-up documentary in April that Russia had made only minor progress in reforming its anti-doping procedures.

It added that coaches who had officially been banned for doping were still working and other officials continued to warn athletes about upcoming drug tests.