November 11, 2015 / 8:30 AM / 2 years ago

Russian athletics doping row could spread to other sports

A sportsman casts a shadow on a race track while training at a local stadium in the southern city of Stavropol, Russia, November 10, 2015. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The international investigation into alleged drug cheating inside Russian athletics could draw in other Russian sports since they used the same laboratory that now stands accused of covering up failed drugs tests.

In a report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), investigators described a state-sponsored drugs culture in Russian athletics. “There is no reason to believe that athletics is the only sport in Russia to have been affected,” it said while acknowledging its own remit was limited to athletics.

The allegations of drug-taking in athletics - and the prospect Russian athletes could be barred from the Rio Olympics next year as a consequence - is already the biggest sporting scandal to hit Russia for several decades.

But if the affair snowballs to include other sports, including some that are hugely popular, it could cut even deeper into Russian pride which in the past few years has been riding high after a run of sporting successes.

A large part of the allegations in the 323-page report centers around a laboratory in Moscow which processed blood and urine samples from Russian athletes on behalf of the athletics federation, and tested them for banned performance enhancing drugs.

The report alleged that the laboratory destroyed samples despite being told by WADA to preserve them, and that its staff took bribes from athletes or their coaches in exchange for covering up drugs tests that showed up positive. Russian authorities said WADA itself asked them to destroy them.

The Kremlin has dismissed the doping allegations as groundless, while sporting chiefs alleged the international furor over doping was politically motivated.

MULTIPLE SPORTS

According to the Internet site of the Russian anti-doping agency, Rusada, the Moscow laboratory also processed tests for at least 20 other sports besides athletics.

These included such sports as ski jumping, cross-country skiing, power-lifting, boxing, rowing, ice hockey, soccer, biathlon and bobsleigh.

Some of those sports have had experience with drug cheats. In 2013, three Russian swimmers were handed bans after they breached anti-doping regulations. Several Russian skiers have tested positive for banned substances in the last few years.

This year, Russian biathlete Alexander Loginov was banned for two years for doping offences, while two female biathletes, Irina Starykh and Ekaterina Iourieva, were banned in 2014 for testing positive for Erythropoietin, which enhances performance by boosting oxygen levels in the blood.

The world anti-doping body has signaled in the past that it had concerns about the work the Moscow laboratory was doing testing competitors outside athletics.

In 2013, it demanded the laboratory make improvements to its procedures before the Olympic Winter Games the following year in the southern Russian city of Sochi.

BUSY DOCTOR

Apart from the laboratory, there is another point where, according to the WADA report, the drug cheating in Russian athletic intersects with other Russian sports.

The report alleged that Dr. Sergei Portugalov, Chief of the Russian Athletics Federation’s Medical Commission, provided banned substances to Russian athletes and conspired to cover up their positive test results.

The report contains a transcript of a secretly recorded conversation in which an athlete, Yulia Stepanova, discussed with a coach how Portugalov was overloaded with work helping sports people dope.

“He has too many people. When I was visiting him, he had people from swimming – coaches and athletes, other kinds of sport, cross country skiers,” Stepanova was quoted as saying in the report.

Stepanova, an 800-metre runner who was herself caught doping, has since become a whistle blower on cheating in Russian athletics.

Reuters was unable to reach Portugalov for comment. A person answering the phone at the Russian Federal Research Centre of Physical Culture and Sports, said Portugalov used to be the center’s deputy director but no longer worked there.

The person declined to say when he left or why. The center did not reply to written questions from Reuters about the allegations in the report against Portugalov.

DOPING FREE SPORT

A representative at the Russian ski federation said they could not comment on the prevalence of drug cheating in the sport because the federation boss was out of the office.

Jenny Wiedeke, communications manager with international body the International Ski Federation (FIS), said Portugalov had no ties to her organization.

Asked if FIS planned to investigate the sport in Russia, she said: “We’re always working together with WADA to ensure that the sport - all of its disciplines - are clean from doping. With there being hundreds of pages of report, obviously we have to go through it and then work with WADA.”

The All-Russian Swimming Federation said there was no one immediately available to comment. The International Swimming Federation and European Aquatics, the sport’s governing body in Europe, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Ivan Tugarin, a Russian Biathlon Union spokesman, said the union at the moment had no grounds to conduct an additional anti-doping investigation. He said the union had no professional ties with Portugalov.

“The Russian Biathlon Union categorically condemns any use of banned substances in sport and constantly conducts work to prevent situations arising connected to the use of doping,” he said.

Calls to the headquarters of the International Biathlon Union were not answered.

(This version of the story has been refiled to correct title of Biathlon Union official in paragraph 25)

Additional reporting by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi in ZURICH, Ludmila Danilova and Tatiana Ustinova in MOSCOW; editing by Ralph Boulton, Janet McBride

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