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As More Doping Allegations Emerge, Russian Sport Braces For Potential Consequences

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko: "Sorry" and "ashamed" (file photo)
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko: "Sorry" and "ashamed" (file photo)

The scandal surrounding Russian sports continues to grow, despite Moscow’s attempts to accept responsibility and contain the fallout.

As evidence mounts that its troubles stem from a clandestine, state-sponsored doping scheme, the country’s vaunted sports program now stands to lose big -- including a possible team ban from the Rio Olympic Games.

The Kremlin is watching nervously as the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) probes allegations that Russia interfered with the work of its doping laboratory during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has said the claims -- made by a former head of Russia's anti-doping laboratory who has turned whistle-blower and is now in hiding in the United States -- are “very detailed and therefore very worrying.”

Bach said in reported comments on May 18 that should the WADA probe “prove the allegations true, it would represent a shocking new dimension in doping with an, until now, unprecedented level of criminality.”

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach

For the first time on record, Bach suggested that not only Russian track-and-field athletes -- who have been suspended from competition since November owing to widespread doping -- but the entire Russian Olympic team could be banned from competing in Rio in August.

“There can be no doubt -- and no clean athlete in the world should have any doubt -- that the IOC would react with its record of proven zero-tolerance policy not only with regard to individual athletes but to all their entourage within its reach,” he said.

Following allegations made in 2014 by the German broadcaster ARD, WADA launched an investigation that accused Russia of systematic state-sponsored doping and led to the suspension of Russia’s track-and-field federation.

Moscow has publicly issued a mea culpa, but the scandal has shown no signs of abating, with positive tests for meldonium and other banned substances rocking Russian sports far beyond track and field.

Fresh concerns emerged just a few months after the athletics team ban, when professional tennis star Maria Sharipova tested positive for the recently banned drug meldonium, which is said to benefit athletes by increasing stamina and endurance. Worldwide, 172 athletes -- 30 of them Russian -- have tested positive for the Latvian-made drug, widely used by athletes in the former Soviet Union.

In April, Russia replaced the entire U-18 ice hockey team with younger players to compete at the world championships in the United States. The alleged reason? All the players tested positive for meldonium.

Aleksandr Povetkin
Aleksandr Povetkin

And in the latest embarrassment for the Kremlin, Russian boxer Aleksandr Povetkin became the latest to come under scrutiny when he, too, tested positive for meldonium. On May 17, it was announced his upcoming WBC heavyweight title fight with champion Deontay Wilder had been canceled as a result of the test.

WADA announced on May 10 it was probing fresh Russian doping allegations two days after U.S. TV aired new revelations from the Sochi games. The broadcast by the CBS investigative news program 60 Minutes, based on recorded conversations between Vitaly Stepanov and the former head of Russia's anti-doping laboratory, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, claimed that several Russian athletes had doped at Sochi, including four gold medalists. The broadcast also suggested that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) interfered with the Olympic Games' anti-doping program, including using FSB agents as Doping Control Officers (DCOs).

Rodchenkov, who now lives in Los Angeles, told The New York Times last week that he ran an organized doping program for Russian athletes and helped switch tainted samples for clean ones. Rodchenkov said he was helped by people he believed to be Russian security officers. Russian anti-doping experts and members of the intelligence services are alleged to have secretly replaced urine samples tainted by performance-enhancing drugs with clean urine collected months earlier, The New York Times said.

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has called the allegations “nonsense.”

Coincidentally or not, U.S. prosecutors have launched their own probe into the Russian doping allegations, which the Kremlin has rejected as outside U.S. jurisdiction.

The new probes couldn’t come at a worse time for Moscow as it fights to get its track-and-field athletes reinstated to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

The IAAF is to decide on June 17 whether to drop the suspension on the Russian track-and-field federation, paving the way for the country’s athletes to compete in Rio.​

Positive tests for meldonium (above) and other banned substances are rocking Russian sports far beyond track and field.
Positive tests for meldonium (above) and other banned substances are rocking Russian sports far beyond track and field.

But as allegations mount, not only in Russia but elsewhere in the world, both the IAAF and the IOC are under growing pressure to appear proactive.

On May 17, the IOC announced that 31 athletes could be barred from the Rio games after samples from the 2008 Beijing Olympics came back positive after being retested. The athletes have not been identified, but the IOC says they come from 12 countries and competed in six sports, and Russian athletes are widely expected to be among them.

The IOC is also retesting samples from athletes who competed at the 2012 London Olympics, leading to even more athletes possibly being barred from Rio.

This is all, of course, being followed closely in Russia.

“We don’t know whether among the suspended 31 are any Russian athletes, but, given all that has happened, it would seem to be the least worry,” wrote the Russian sports daily Sports Express on May 18 in an article titled, Goodbye, Olympics?

With damning evidence mounting evidence and the stakes high, Mutko appears to have softened his rhetoric in recent days.

In comments on May 15, he said that Russia was “sorry” and “ashamed” about the doping allegations, although he repeated the Kremlin line that any guilt lies with the doping athletes, not the state.

On May 18, Mutko tried to spread the blame further, saying doping is a problem not only for Russia and proposed creating a single system “that will not allow for manipulation” and could be trusted around the world. He also told TASS that Russia was prepared to appoint a foreigner to head its anti-doping agency, where he said international specialists were already working.

His comments come as the Lausanne laboratory gets set to reexamine samples from the Sochi games, using what the IOC calls “the most modern and efficient methods at its disposal.”

More samples testing positive for doping will add pressure to the IOC to take further firm steps, with Russia likely first in line.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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