Promises and finger-pointing as Russia reacts to doping scandal

Promises and finger-pointing as Russia reacts to doping scandal

MOSCOW - Two months after the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) suspended Russia over doping and corruption claims, the country is launching reforms and making promises.

Russian officials initially dismissed the findings of the November WADA report as groundless, but acted upon some recommendations after President Vladimir Putin said the country "must do everything" to fight doping

While meeting some recommendations and even pondering making doping a criminal offence for competitors and coaches, many Russian officials still see the accusations as a smear campaign meant to discredit Moscow.

And ahead of the Saturday election of a new chief of Russia's athletics federation, a second report by a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) independent commission again targeted Russia with allegations of shady behind-the-scenes deals that could be linked to doping cover-ups.

Russian officials initially dismissed the findings of the November WADA report as groundless, but acted upon some recommendations after President Vladimir Putin said the country "must do everything" to fight doping.

IAAF outlined strict reinstatement criteria last month, including severing ties with Russian athletics officials, officers or staff with any past involvement in doping.

Russian sports officials have pledged to clean up their act, with the sports ministry expressing Thursday its "full support" for the commission's recommendations.

The leadership of Russian anti-doping agency RUSADA -- which WADA claimed provided advance notice to athletes about out-of-competition testing -- last month resigned en masse following Putin's anti-doping pledge.

Officials have also promised to promptly reaccredit RUSADA and the Moscow anti-doping laboratory, both suspended over the WADA report published in November.

RUSADA's interim general director, Anna Antseliovich, declined an AFP interview request, citing her inability to speak with the press amid ongoing reforms. The interim leadership of the Moscow-anti-doping laboratory also refused to comment.

Russian authorities are mulling "harshening measures" to curb the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport, Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said, with a possibility of introducing "criminal liability".

The head of the State Duma's committee for sport, Dmitry Svishchev, told AFP in an interview that he would back a bill to that effect.

"As we have seen, administrative responsibility is probably not enough," Svishchev said. "Russia wants to show that it can be a leader to solve the international problem of doping."

"We want to introduce criminal liability. Any athlete, coach or doctor will think twice before turning to doping," he added.

-'Political' forces -

The world athletics governing body has acknowledged Russia's efforts to turn the situation around.

An IAAF taskforce that visited Moscow this week said that sports officials had recognised the need to revamp the country's scandal-ridden athletics federation.

But the participation of Russian track and field athletes in this summer's Rio de Janeiro Games is still up in the air, with the IAAF expected to make a decision on Russia's reinstatement at the earliest in late March.

Failure to reform the anti-doping system could see track and field athletes miss the Olympics for the first time since the Soviet Union's 1984 boycott of the Los Angeles Games.

Dick Pound, the former president of WADA who chairs the independent commission, refused to predict whether Russia could make enough progress in time for its athletes to compete in Rio this August.

"I was confident in November, even in September, that if Russia wanted to address this problem, it could get back in," Pound said on Thursday. "Whether it can do so, I don't know. I'm not in possession of further facts."

Russian officials' statements meanwhile have wavered between the recognition of WADA's accusations and outright indignation at claims they say are meant to discredit their country.

Mutko -- although he acknowledged the need to reform anti-doping practices -- on Thursday slammed the "political" forces behind the latest WADA report.

He also downplayed Russia's ties to Valentin Balakhnichev, the ex-IAAF treasurer and former ARAF president who last week was banned for life from working in sports for bribes taken to cover up doping by Russian athletes.

"The accusations against Balakhnichev are not Russia's problem. They are the problem of the IAAF," Mutko told R-Sport news agency. "We cannot interfere in the affairs of an intentional organisation."

Balakhnichev, against whom WADA said it had incriminating evidence, lamented to AFP that the "next stage of punishment is execution".

Russia's athletics federation is set to elect a new president on Saturday.

Mikhail Butov, ARAF's secretary general and a member of the IAAF's ruling council, will be running for the position against three other candidates including 32-year-old former European high jump champion Aleksandr Shustov.

Butov's candidacy has raised some eyebrows given that he held a leadership role in ARAF when the doping scandal broke out.

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