Russian authorities have sought to cast doubt on a New York Times report that said the country had conceded the existence of a widespread doping conspiracy among sports officials and athletes, claiming that statements by its anti-doping chief were "distorted and taken out of context."
The Russian anti-doping agency, RUSADA, made the claim in a statement on December 28, a day after a New York Times report quoted Anna Antseliovich, the acting director of RUSADA, as acknowledging that there had been "an institutional conspiracy" but denying accusations that it was sponsored by the state.
The remarks from Antseliovich and others interviewed by The New York Times followed a December 9 report by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that said that more than 1,000 Russian athletes in some 30 sports used banned drugs at the 2012 London Olympics, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, and numerous other international amateur sports competitions.
McLaren said Russian athletes had cheated "on an unprecedented scale." His report has led to three international sports competitions being moved out of Russia amid threats of a boycott by athletes and international sports federations.
Nearly two dozen Russian Olympic medalists have also been stripped of their medals after having their urine samples retested.
WADA reports earlier this year accusing Russian athletes of doping led to the entire Russian track-and-field team and dozens of its athletes in several other sports being banned from the Rio Olympics in August.
McLaren's reports accused Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) and Sports Ministry of involvement in the doping efforts.
Vitaly Mutko, who served as sports minister from 2008 until October 2016 and is now a deputy prime minister, said earlier this month that McLaren's claim of an "institutional conspiracy" had not been proven and has said repeatedly since the scandal began that individual athletes and coaches were the main culprits in the Russian doping affair.
Antseliovich, who was not directly implicated in the alleged doping conspiracy despite being a leading official in the Sports Ministry, said she was shocked by the McLaren reports.
The New York Times said that the Russian admission of a doping conspriracy "may have been motivated by a desire to reconcile" with global anti-doping regulators "who have stipulated that the nation accept the findings of the recent investigation" before it can be recertified to conduct drug testing and recover eligibility to host Olympic competitions.
But Antseliovich asserted that top government officials had no knowledge of the "doping conspiracy."
The New York Times said that in denying the doping program was state-sponsored, the Russian officials it interviewed defined the state as President Vladimir Putin and his closest associates.
Putin has repeatedly denied state involvement in doping and on December 23 blamed the directors of anti-doping labs in Moscow and Sochi for the scandal.
Putin claimed Moscow lab chief Grigory Rodchenkov, who became a whistle-blower for WADA, of forging doping evidence against Russian athletes at the behest of "foreign" forces he did not identify.
Vitaly Smirnov, a former sports minister and Russian Olympic Committee president chosen by Putin to oversee reforms in Russian sports, told The New York Times that "we made a lot of mistakes."
But he also hinted at an anti-Russian bias in the scandal, saying Western athletes received favorable treatment from international anti-doping officials.
"Russia never had the opportunities that were given to other countries," he said. "The general feeling in Russia is that we didn't have a chance."
A day after The New York Times article was published, senior Russian officials sought to cast doubt on Antseliovich's statements and on whether they amounted to an admission of a doping conspiracy.
"RUSADA declares that the words of...Antseliovich were distorted and taken out of context," Russian news agencies TASS and Interfax cited the Russian anti-doping agency as saying in a statement on December 28.
"We want to underline that RUSADA does not and cannot have the authority to admit or deny such facts," it said.
Interfax quoted Antseliovich as saying on social media, "Of course my words were taken out of context."
Separately, Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov said that Russia's "position on this situation remains unchanged" and that he suspected that the newspaper "inaccurately interpreted" Antseliovich's remarks.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists on December 28 that the Kremlin would not immediately comment on The New York Times report.
"It's necessary to check the veracity of these words before we can say anything," Peskov said of the quotes from Antseliovich.
He said the Kremlin also wants to understand the context of the remarks and "what was meant" before "drawing any conclusions."
With reporting by The New York Times, AFP, Reuters, TASS, Interfax, and dpa