The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has dealt a blow to Russia's strategy of blaming the country's doping scandal primarily on a whistle-blower, saying that former Moscow anti-doping official Grigory Rodchenkov was "truthful" in revealing a Russian doping "conspiracy" to the world.
Rodchenkov, the former Moscow anti-doping laboratory director who in 2015 first aired allegations of widespread, state-sponsored doping in Russia, was a "truthful witness," the Olympics panel prosecuting doping cases against individual Russian athletes said on November 27.
Russian authorities have sought to deflect blame onto Rodchenkov and individual athletes for a string of doping cases that has led to the banning of dozens of Russian athletes from sporting events in the last two years.
In a case opened in Moscow against Rodchenkov earlier this month, the Russian Investigative Committee accused him of orchestrating the doping program at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics and other events while he headed the Moscow lab from 2006 to 2015.
The Russian committee said it would seek the extradition of Rodchenkov, who U.S. media have reported lives in hiding in the United States out of fear for his life and is under FBI protection as a cooperating witness.
The Olympics panel on November 27 said Rodchenkov, who has admitted to participating in the doping scheme while in office, may have committed "wrongdoing" in the past, but that does not undermine his value as a witness to what it called "a conspiracy which infected and subverted the Olympic Games in the worst possible manner" in Sochi.
The Olympics panel said that World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) investigator Richard McLaren, who was appointed to verify Rodchenkov's claims in May 2016, in a subsequent investigative report proved beyond reasonable doubt the existence of a doping "conspiracy" in Russia.
Discussing the case of Aleksandr Legkov, a cross-country skier who was disqualified from the Olympics last month, the Olympics commission said that "evidence establishes that a scheme of sample-swapping as described in the McLaren report and the affidavit of Dr. Rodchenkov was indeed in place and implemented in Sochi."
The panel made its statement as it announced the sanctioning of five more Russian athletes, bringing the total to 19 athletes banned so far from the 2018 Winter Olympics in February in South Korea.
The public vindication of Rodchenkov and McLaren, each repeatedly denounced by Russian authorities, fueled speculation that the IOC executive board at a meeting on December 5 may ban Russia's entire team from the Pyeongchang Olympics.
The IOC has already stripped medals from Russian athletes that had been earned at Sochi in biathlon, bobsled, cross-country skiing, speedskating, and skeleton. Russia was knocked off the top of the medals table last week because of the disqualifications.
The Kremlin vowed earlier on November 27 to defend Russian athletes who have been stripped of their Olympic medals.
"The main thing is to persistently and energetically take all possible measures to protect our legitimate interests and the legitimate interests of our athletes together with international sports organizations," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters during a conference call.
"One can hardly steal a victory that has already been won, especially a victory that will forever stay with our hero athletes," he said.
Russian officials in denying the existence of a state-sponsored doping program have said they would appeal the IOC rulings and take their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, who was previously Russia's sports minister, has even sought to deflect blame onto Olympics officials, saying the IOC and global anti-doping regulators failed in their "responsibilities" to keep the games clean.
WADA's McLaren report found in December 2016 that more than 1,000 Russian athletes, including Olympic medalists, benefited from a program involving security agents and laboratory workers to conceal positive doping tests.
The report said more than 30 sports were involved in the systematic cover-up, which it said dated back until at least 2011 and continued after the Sochi Games.
Gold medal-winning bobsledders Dmitry Trunenkov and Aleksei Negodailo, as well as biathlon relay silver medalists Yana Romanova and Olga Vilukhina were the latest to be sanctioned on November 27.
With reporting by AP, TASS, and Reuters