Russia's race to drum out doping in sport hobbled by false starts
Athletes' inclusion at Rio Olympics at stake
Another week of damaging doping revelations is hobbling Russia's efforts to restore its blackened sporting reputation.
Vitaly Mutko, the affable but beleaguered Russian sports minister, swings from contrition for meldonium revelations this week — "I bear a collective responsibility" — to attack, "politics is getting in the way of sport."
In a long interview with CBC in Moscow, Mutko admits he is frustrated with the persistent claims, which he aggressively denies, that his ministry was implicated in "state-sponsored doping," and now cannot root it out.
"Russia is a super power in sport and we are also in the fight against doping," he said in the sports ministry office this week.
"We are ready to open our country to invite experts, we have nothing to hide."
But this week, when Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova, admitted she took meldonium for a decade before it was banned in 2016, she opened another incriminating chapter in the doping saga.
Sharapova has lived and trained in the U.S. for 15 years, but the drug she was taking isn't licensed in the U.S., or in Canada; it's made in Latvia and sold widely across eastern Europe.
Nearly 100 international athletes' samples tested since January show traces of meldonium, according to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), including samples taken from Russian athletes in tennis, speed skating, rugby and ice dancing.
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The news couldn't have come at a worse time for Russia. On Friday, the world track federation said Russia wasn't ready to be readmitted into world competition.
The IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) will re-examine its decision in May, in advance of the Olympics.
The sports minister's attempts at contrition aren't helped by widely circulated suspicions in Moscow this week that banning meldonium in 2016 was another western plot to embarrass Russia.
Even Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, consumed by Russia's intervention in Syria, weighed in on the sports story.
"The latest situation invites many questions," Lavrov told REN TV. "After being an ordinary medication for decades that all athletes and people with cardio-vascular problems were free to use — all of a sudden it has been declared a doping formula."
"Possibly, meldonium had the ill-fortune to have been synthesized in Latvia back in the Soviet era. Should that have happened after Latvia became part of the 'so-called' civilized world, would meldonium have been destined to have a different future? I don't know," posited Lavrov.
Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko walks a difficult line. He has to admit to doping in Russia, in order to dig it out. But he will not accept the conclusion drawn from a WADA investigation into Russian track and field, that doping was "state-sponsored."
"I want you to understand me, me and Russia," Mutko leans forward to emphasize his point.
"First, we never denied that we have problems with doping. But we always said that it's not only the problem in Russia."
Pressed that Russia has lost the trust of international sports agencies, he fires back.
"What do you mean lost the trust? If we read the Sunday Times, every week and watch ARD (the German broadcaster), then it will be lost."
ARD documentaries broke open Russia's doping scandal.
"IAAF, and WADA, they are also under huge pressure," says Mutko.
"They arrest the international president of athletics, but they are the clean ones and we aren't, isn't this a double standard?" he asks defiantly.
Promises that cheaters will be punished
The sports minister says Russia is working hard to restore a credible anti-doping structure. Athletes' samples, since mid-February, are being sent to testing labs in Britain. A wide range of penalties, fines, suspensions, disqualifications, will be imposed on athletes. Coaches, he says, found to be involved in doping will be fired.
"We will punish those who push these drugs, and this means jail for the most serious drugs," says Mutko.
But Russia hasn't convinced the world track federation. Track athletes may yet have to sit out Rio's Games. A loud chorus is building amongst "clean athletes" to keep Russia out.
"We sanction athletes who intentionally cheat with performance-enhancing drugs at the highest level, we give them four-year sanctions." says Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. anti doping agency, USADA.
"That's a meaningful sanction; not a couple of months simply with no testing, then say trust us we've cleaned it all up – let us back into the Games," says Tygart in an interview with CBC from Colorado Springs.
"You need to ensure the athletes who are part of that program aren't allowed to go back to the Games and once again rob athletes who were trying to do it the right way."
Deadline for Rio decision looming
Vitaly Mutko has a lot at stake. He is also heading up Russia's FIFA 2018 World Cup preparations. And he has fewer than eight weeks to help convince the IAAF to allow Russia into Rio.
"We really want our athletes to take part in the Olympic Games, but hear me out, this won't be a tragedy; a tragedy is when people die, when planes crash," says Mutko.
"But we think that the healthy and clean athletes must participate in the Games, they do not deserve this kind of treatment."
President of the IAAF, Sebastian Coe on Friday said, "It is not our natural instinct to not allow clean athletes to compete in international competition, but it is our responsibility to make sure athletes who are competing are clean."
Regarding Russia, "we have to continue to be tough about this process."