Russia’s stature as a sporting superpower is part of President Vladimir Putin’s rebranding of his country as resurgent, and allegations from a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) commission that Russian athletes have systematically used performance- enhancing substances have cut deep.
“I hope this will not affect the morale of our athletes,” Vadim Zelichenok, the acting head of the Russian Athletics Foundation (VFLA), at the centre of the burgeoning scandal, told a news conference.
“There is an element of a political hit job here because quite a few things were described (in the report) in a biased way,” he said, insisting there was no corruption in the Russian sporting establishment.
The WADA commission recommended Russia be suspended from international competition. If endorsed by the International Athletics Federation (IAAF), the proposal could see Russian athletes excluded from next year’s Olympic games in Brazil.
IAAF head Sebastian Coe has given Moscow to the end of the week to respond to WADA accusations of a state-sponsored doping culture, extending to athletes and coaches, and other allegations of collusion in payment of bribes to suppress medical results that pointed to doping. Though sports-related, the imbroglio is likely to play into Russia’s wider political and media discourse which, fuelled by the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, is dominated by portrayal of a standoff between Russia and the US-led West in which Moscow is often unfairly maligned.
Nikolai Durmanov, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping agency, described the allegations as complete nonsense and as a literary work based upon “a political order”.
The previous head of Russia’s athletics federation, Valentin Balakhnichev, whom the report sharply criticised, left his post in February this year.
He has repeatedly denied allegations of wrongdoing and revealed yesterday he intended to take legal action to defend his name and that of Russian athletics. Russia is still smarting from talk, emanating from some Western politicians, about the possibility of stripping it of the right to host the 2018 soccer World Cup because of a corruption scandal that has engulfed FIFA.
Putin, who has yet to comment on the doping allegations, said in May he saw the hand of Washington behind the Fifa scandal, accusing it of trying to block re-election of Sepp Blatter, a strong Russian ally, as Fifa president.
Blatter has since been suspended and is under criminal investigation. Putin, a keen ice hockey player, has premised much of his promotion of a resurgent Russia on its sporting success, portraying its hosting of a successful winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 as a symbol of a newly confident nation.
Putin’s spokesman yesterday dismissed the doping allegations. “Until some evidence is presented ... it is difficult to accept these accusations, they are quite groundless,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said.
The athletics scandal is deeper- reaching than the Fifa affair or corruption revelations at the International Olympic Committee 15 years ago in that it has directly affected results on the field of sport. Medals would have gone to athletes who had cheated, while more deserving competitors were denied awards.
Russia came fourth overall in the 2012 London Olympics, winning over 80 medals. If its athletes had been excluded it would still have finished fourth, but won about 20 fewer medals.
Nikita Kamaev, head of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, said a Moscow laboratory used for doping tests had been shut down after its accreditation was suspended by WADA. Kamaev said allegations about a secret second laboratory and the alleged role of Russia’s FSB Security Service in covering up doping were the stuff of fantasy.
“It’s absolute rubbish, people have an over-active imagination,” he told a news conference. “The stuff about a secret lab in the basement of the Lubyanka (nickname for FSB headquarters) does not stand up. The people (who said this) are living in the era of James Bond films.”