ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) - As it edges closer to a ban from the Winter Olympics, the Russian sports world is a bitter place.
Investigations into doping haven’t encouraged Russian athletes to speak out about abuses. Instead, there is a public hunt for whistleblowers, or “traitors to the motherland,” as cross-country ski federation president Yelena Valbe calls them.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed the International Olympic Committee - which will make the final ruling on Russia’s eligibility - is being manipulated by shadowy U.S. interests intent on using doping scandals to disgrace his government ahead of elections in March.
Ahead of that IOC ruling, Russian officials face two days of World Anti-Doping Agency meetings this week which will help determine Russia’s Olympic future.
Formally, the issue on the table is the status of Russia’s drug-testing agency, not Olympic participation.
WADA restored most of the Russian agency’s key powers in June and will rule this week on whether to readmit it fully. The sticking point isn’t the agency’s performance, but the Russian government and sports organizations’ reluctance to accept any responsibility for what WADA considers a vast doping scheme and cover-up, including at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Since the government funds RUSADA and the sports bodies are represented on its board, they have to convince WADA they’re worthy trustees.
WADA goes into its summit with a stronger hand after revealing Friday that it now has what it believes to be the database of testing results from the Moscow drug-testing laboratory from 2012-15, the period when the alleged cover-up scheme was at its height. That could confirm earlier whistleblower evidence or lead to even more cases against athletes.
WADA’s two key demands are that Russia accepts the findings of WADA investigator Richard McLaren’s report from last year and that it releases a batch of seized urine samples from the Moscow laboratory.
Russia refused to do either.
“It’s impossible to agree with (the report), because the report contains a lot of discrepancies,” Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov said Monday, adding “it will be hard for us” to convince WADA to reinstate the Russian agency.
Accepting McLaren’s findings would mean abandoning a Kremlin line, stated regularly and vehemently, that Russia has never had any state involvement in doping.
McLaren’s investigation alleged various officials from the Sports Ministry oversaw a doping cover-up, vetoing punishment for “protected” star athletes. Most of the ministry officials named in McLaren’s report quietly resigned or were dismissed last year, but then-Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko was promoted to deputy prime minister and continues to oversee preparations for next year’s soccer World Cup in Russia.
Russian relations with the IOC have soured after it started banning Russian athletes for doping offenses from the Sochi Olympics. Six have been banned so far, including two medalists, and verdicts are expected within days on several more.
Still, IOC President Thomas Bach has long been supportive of Russia and said this month it was “unacceptable” to demand a blanket ban for Russia “before due process.”
Last year, Russia was viciously critical of WADA but remained on good terms with the IOC, which ruled out a blanket ban from the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and passed the decision to individual sports federations. Only track and field and weightlifting imposed team-wide sanctions. This year, Russia’s tone toward the IOC is less warm.
“Come over to my country and try to take (my medals),” Russian bobsledder and federal lawmaker Alexei Voevoda taunted IOC disciplinary panel head Denis Oswald in Russian media on Monday.
Previous doping whistleblowers have left Russia citing their personal safety, but only after coming forward. The IOC bans have sparked a witch-hunt in Russian winter sports, with a cross-country skier and a biathlon coach both having to issue statements denying they’ve worked with WADA after being accused by former colleagues.
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