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Russian Officials Fume Over Possibility Of Athletes Ban At Winter Olympics

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko

Russian officials are fuming over the possibility that Russian athletes could be banned from the Winter Olympics in February because of doping, with Russian state television threatening not to broadcast the games.

"What's the point of showing the games, if our athletes aren't there?" Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko said on November 17, according to Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

"Judging by the early decisions that have been made [by international sport governing bodies], we can see the direction all this is going in," he said. "If the goal is to discredit Russia and Russian sport, that is being achieved."

The International Olympic Committee is set to decide at its executive board meeting from December 5-7 whether Russia and its athletes can participate in the games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which run from February 9-25.

Already, six Russian athletes have been banned from the games over doping. Anti-doping advocates are pushing for a ban on the whole Russian team, but some say this is unlikely.

Over 100 Russian athletes were banned from last year's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro over failed drug tests. But the rest of the Russian team was allowed to compete under the Russian flag.

Another possibility that sports officials have mentioned is that Russian athletes could be allowed to compete as neutrals, as has occurred in previous competitions since allegations of widespread doping and cover-ups emerged in 2015.

Mutko told RIA Novosti that Russia is ready to cooperate with the World Anti-Doping Agency and comply with the anti-doping mandates laid down by the agency. But he said the agency should also show a willingness to compromise.

WADA officials have said they will not back down from a key demand they laid down as a condition of fully reinstating Russia's anti-doping agency: that Russian leaders acknowledge the state's involvement in the doping scandal.

But Russian officials from President Vladimir Putin on down have strongly denied any state involvement and said they will never accede to that demand. They blame the doping scandal on individual athletes and their coaches.

WADA's decision to not fully reinstate Russia's RUSADA earlier this week is expected to influence the Olympic committee's decision next month on allowing Russian athletes to compete in the games.

WADA has provided the Olympic panel with what WADA officials say is evidence of Russian state involvement in its athletes' doping.

Russia's official broadcaster, the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), issued a statement on November 17 saying that "if our team is barred from participating in the Winter Olympics, our channels will not show the games," the Russian news agency Interfax reported on November 17.

The Kremlin's spokesman said that while it is not involved in any decision to cancel TV coverage of the games, it "understands" why the state media group might choose to do so.

"Broadcasting the Olympic Games requires the acquisition of rights that are very expensive. These sums are clearly spent in the hope of great interest from Russian viewers," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

"If our team is not participating in the Olympics, then the interest of Russian viewers in these programs will be reduced.

"But it is still too soon to talk about that. Preparations for the Olympics are ongoing, and our sporting authorities are continuing with great patience in dialogue with international sporting bodies," Peskov said.

Three Russian channels were originally set to broadcast the games: VGTRK's Rossia 1, the state-controlled Channel One, and the sports network Match TV, which is indirectly owned by the state through gas company Gazprom.

Channel One will also boycott the games if the national team is banned, the Russian business daily Vedomosti reported. But Match TV told AFP its agreements to screen the games were still in force.

"Nobody has banned Russia from the games. We don't see any point in discussing the subject today," spokesman Levan Matua told AFP.

While Peskov urged patience as Russia negotiates with sport authorities in the run-up to the games, another Russian sport official fumed recently over the doping allegations.

Leonid Tyagachev, who was the head of Russia’s Olympic Committee from 2001-10 and remains its honorary president, told Russian radio that Russian sport has proved it is clean, and if the Olympic committee makes excessive demands, then Russia will boycott the games.

"We have shown the world how great we are in sport... We don't need them and we don't need their Olympics. We are not going to beg on our knees," he said in an interview with Govorit Moskva radio.

Tyagachev also said the whistle-blower who provided WADA with evidence of a state doping program in Russia, former Moscow anti-doping lab Director Grigory Rodchenkov, "simply needs to be shot for lying."

Rodchenkov, who lives in exile in the United States, claims that agents from Russia’s FSB security services helped switch clean urine samples for drug-tainted samples at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

With reporting by AP, AFP, TASS, RIA Novosti, Reuters, and the Guardian
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