Ban on Russian athletes evokes mixed reactions

Russian athletes could miss out on next summer’s Olympics in Rio.

Russian athletes could miss out on next summer’s Olympics in Rio.

Grigory Sysoev / RIA Novosti
The decision by international track-and-field authorities to ban all Russian athletes from competing in international competitions saw comments ranging from contrition to belligerence. The IAAF barred Russian athletes for alleged drug use.

Russia’s track-and-field athletes heard with trepidation the night of November 13 the news they had all been dreading: the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) had accepted recommendations of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and temporarily banned the country from international athletics competitions.

The decision could mean that no Russian athlete will be allowed to compete in the track-and-field events in the 1916 Summer Olympics in Brazil.

As if the ban on its athletes was not bad enough, Russia also lost the rights to stage the World Junior Championship in Kazan and the World Race-Walking Championship in Cheboksary next year.

Russian athletes have been barred from competing on the basis of a 325-page report compiled by a commission headed by former WADA president Dick Pound. The report alleges a programme of doping and concealment at the highest levels of Russian sport.

The decision came as a bitter blow for Russia, which had argued that a blanket ban would equally penalize clean competitors and suspected cheats.

Mixed messages

Russia’s response to the WADA report has been a mixture of belligerence and damage control. Officials have been meeting to consider an appropriate response.

After the report was released on November 11, but before the IAAF meeting, President Vladimir Putin held a meeting with leaders of Russia’s sports federations and instructed Sports Minister Vitaly  Mutko to conduct a complete internal investigation that would cooperate fully with WADA and other international doping bodies. Mutko later suggested that foreign doping control experts could be invited to work with the Moscow testing lab.

Grigory Rodchenkov, head of the Moscow drug-testing lab at the heart of the scandal, produced a detailed defence of his conduct.

“Dick Pound alleged that I ordered the destruction of 1,417 bio-samples,” Rodchenkov told Ves Sport. “But we stored every sample that WADA asked us to preserve during the course of the investigation. Many of the facts in this report present a peculiar interpretation of reality.” However, shortly after loudly protesting his innocence, Rodchenkov resigned.

Mutko has almost personified Russia’s mixed message strategy. At times, he struck a conciliatory stance, telling a group of international journalists hours before the IAAF meeting that Russia would “do everything necessary” to comply with anti-doping requirements. But he also took a consistently combative view of the allegations, hinting that calls to ban Russia from international competition were not only motivated by concern for the integrity of sport.

“Of course, it is possible that Russian athletes might be unable to compete in the Olympics,” Mutko told R-Sport. “For some, it’s a good way of getting rid of a rival competitor; for others it’s a way to damage Russia’s international image.”

Know the audience

The varied comments coming out of Russia could reflect a need to balance domestic and international audiences. There has been a growing trend in recent months for Russian officials to blame foreign influences for the country’s problems, regardless of whether the issue is related to politics, economics or sport. The Russian team’s decision to leave the ice before the Canadian anthem played at the World Ice Hockey Championship final was attributed to outside troublemakers.

But officials also seem to understand that the country’s international sporting image depends on its commitment to anti-doping policies. The day after the report was released, Vadim Zelichenok, acting head of the Russian Athletics Federation, told journalists that Russia had submitted an official reply to the IAAF. “In our reply to the IAAF, we accepted several of the allegations. However, we explained that all these violations occurred under the auspices of the previous regime within the Russian Athletics Federation and happened some time ago.”

The move to draw a clear distinction between past problems and the current anti-doping regime is an attempt to acknowledge problems while salvaging the reputations of athletes competing today.

At the World Aquatic Championships in Kazan this summer, Mutko reiterated Russia’s commitment to drug-free sport, outlining newly introduced measures that include criminal liability for involvement in doping, the creation of the independent RUSADA anti-doping agency and a programme of 15,000 drug tests every year.

After the release of the WADA report, Mutko took a similar stance, telling journalists, “We have clear instructions from the president to find common ground with the international organizations and I will do that; I will co-operate with them.”

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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