Doping Suspensions Deal Blow to Olympic Dreams

Russia's dreams of pulling off a dazzling performance at the Beijing Olympics took a jolt Thursday with the announcement that five top female athletes had been suspended after failing doping tests.

The athletes' coach told The Moscow Times that he believed the suspensions were politically motivated and an attempt to improve China's chances at the games, which open Aug. 8.

The IAAF, the international governing board for track and field, informed the Russians on Thursday that it had decided to suspend a total of seven female athletes because drug tests taken in Moscow last week did not coincide with urine samples taken in 2007 tests, said the All-Russian Athletics Federation, Russia's track and field organization.

Five of the seven suspended athletes -- Yelena Soboleva, Darya Pishchalnikova, Gulfia Khanafeyeva, Tatyana Tomashova and Yulia Fomenko -- are star members of Russia's 2008 Olympic team, and four of them are current or former world champions in at least one event. Soboleva, for one, set a world record in the 1,500-meter race at this year's indoor world championships.

The IAAF said in a statement that the athletes are accused of "a fraudulent substitution of urine, which is both a prohibited method and also a form of tampering with the doping-control process."

The suspensions sparked an outcry from the Russian side.

"This is pure politics," Sergei Vasilyev, the coach of the suspended athletes, said by telephone. "If these athletes, who are the main contenders for gold medals, are forced out of the games, the new favorites will automatically be the Chinese."

Vasilyev said it would have been virtually impossible for the athletes to replace their urine samples, which, he said, were taken in the presence of anti-doping officials.

"Some very troubling questions still have to be asked," Nikolai Durmanov, director of the anti-doping department of the Russian Olympic Committee, said in televised comments. "Most important, why are last year's doping tests suddenly emerging as an issue one week before the start of the games?"

Russia's top official in the IAAF, Valentin Balakhnichev, said late Thursday on Channel Onen television that the athletes could appeal and still might have a chance to participate in the games.

While the suspensions might hurt Russia's chances of outperforming China in medal accumulation, Russian hopes remained high Thursday. Riding off an impressive slew of victories in recent international competitions -- gold medals at the 2007 Eurobasket Championship and the 2008 World Cup Hockey Championship, Zenit St. Petersburg's UEFA Championship in May and the Russian football team's unlikely run to the Euro 2008 semifinals last month -- many Russians are looking forward to a continuation of the athletic success in Beijing.

"The first week isn't really our territory, as it's mostly swimming events, where the United States and Australia dominate. But the second week looks promising -- track and field, wrestling, synchronized swimming, basketball and handball -- sports where our chances look very good," said Russian Olympic Committee spokesman Gennady Shvets.

He said Russian Olympic Committee Leonid Tyagachev is counting on Russia taking up to 80 medals and being among the top three countries in total medals won.

In the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Russia placed third in the number of gold medals, with 27, behind the United States and China. But its total number of medals, 92, was second only to the United States' 103.

Russia will be represented in 33 sports by a delegation of 460 athletes, if the seven suspended this week do not participate. The Russian delegation is the world's third largest, following China's 639 athletes and the United States' 596.

Carrying the Russian flag at the opening ceremony on Aug. 8 will be basketball team captain Andrei Kirilenko, who plays for the Utah Jazz. "It is a great honor for any athlete to carry his national flag at the Olympics. I'm proud to be following in the footsteps of Karelin, Popov and Lavrov," he said by e-mail. Russian Olympic wrestler Alexander Karelin, swimmer Alexander Popov and handball player Andrei Lavrov all performed the same duty at opening ceremonies in previous Olympics.

Leading the basketball team along with Kirilenko will be point guard J.R. Holden, a U.S. citizen who plays for CSKA Moscow and obtained Russian citizenship five years ago. Holden hit the winning basket against Spain last year to give Russia the winning title.

"Our victory in the 2007 European basketball championship was unexpected," said Sergei Tarakanov, general manager of the Russian men's basketball team and member of the Soviet Union's Olympic champion 1988 squad. "Now whomever we beat last time will be set on proving it was a fluke."

Should the United States and Russia meet in the second round, Kirilenko will be matched up against Jazz teammates Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams. "It doesn't matter to me that my Jazz teammates may become my opponents. Regardless, any match with the U.S. team will be very tough," Kirilenko said.

On the women's side, strong performances are expected from Russia's tennis and synchronized swimming teams. World pole-vault record holder Yelena Isinbayeva is heavily favored to win the gold this summer.

The government will hand out cash prizes to medal winners: $100,000 for first place, $40,000 for second and $20,000 for third, Shvets said. The amount is double from previous games over the past decade, a change that Shvets said reflected the rise in the cost of living in Russia.

Several regions are offering additional monetary rewards to homegrown athletes, including the Volgograd region, which has promised 1.9 million rubles ($81,000) to any native gold medalist, Izvestia reported.

Alexander Ratner, general director of Olympic Panorama, the company organizing most Russian fans' travel to the games, said they had provided travel services for 3,000 people.

Asked what he was advising fans, he said: "As always in a foreign country, try to eat at good quality restaurants and be careful. The risk of bird flu, however, has been exaggerated -- as long as you don't visit a chicken factory."

The upper echelons of power are also taking advantage of the Olympics excitement.

"I'm convinced that this will be a grand athletic holiday, bringing to the Chinese capital hundreds of thousands of fans, including Russians," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a meeting with his Chinese colleague Yan Tszechi, Itar-Tass reported.

He announced that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would be in Beijing for the start of the games and would "lead Russian fans" at the opening ceremony.