Left: Russia's Tatyana Tomashova is a strong contender for gold in the 1500m in Beijing. Right: Russia's Gulfiya Khanafeyeva one of seven athletes provisionally suspended by the IAAF. - AP photos
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP):
With only one week to go before the Beijing Olympics, Russia suddenly has its own version of a BALCO doping scandal involving some of the track team's biggest stars.
After a 1 1/2-year sting investigation, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) provisionally suspended seven female Russian athletes yesterday, accusing them of tampering with their urine samples. The list includes Yelena Soboleva, a world record holder and world champion middle-distance runner who was favoured to win both the 800 and 1,500 metres at the Olympics.
The seven athletes, many of them potential Olympic medalists, come from a variety of disciplines, from middle-distance running to the hammer and discuss throw, suggesting the scandal has a broad base and goes well beyond a few competitors.
The athletes could possibly still compete at the Beijing Games if they were to get an emergency ruling lifting the provisional suspension.
The IAAF made the announcement of potentially the biggest doping scandal since BALCO in 2003, hoping some of the dust will have settled by the time the athletics competition begins in Beijing on August 15.
Still, the timing is bad.
The sport is trying to recover from a spate of doping scandals and is hoping to use the Beijing Games to reclaim some of its lustre and again become the pre-eminent Olympic sport.
This, though, is still better than to have a scandal break at the Olympics itself. Twenty years ago, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was caught at the 1988 Seoul Games and it came to largely overshadow those Olympics.
Earlier this month, coach Trevor Graham received a lifetime ban from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for his role in helping his athletes obtain performance-enhancing drugs as part of the BALCO scandal. Related to the case, former Olympic champion Marion Jones has admitted to doping and is currently in prison.
Because of that scandal, athletics took a big plunge in credibility and popularity.
Suspicions about the Russians first surfaced in early 2007 when a string of truly exceptional results were matched by a long string of flawless negative testing results.
"It was almost too good to be true," a source close to the investigation told The Associated Press. "It was odd." The source spoke on condition of anonymity, because the legal case involving the athletes is far from complete.
Focused on athletes
Attention increasingly focused on the Russian athletes and experts started comparing their in-competition samples, which were clearly delivered by the athletes themselves, and those taken out of competition. Those samples taken out of competition dated from March to August 2007, the source said.
"After a long and careful study it was clear it was not the same people giving the sample," the source said.
Based on those findings, the IAAF announced that Soboleva, two-time world 1,500m champion Tatyana Tomashova, middle-distance runners Yulia Fomenko, Svetlana Cherkasova and Olga Yegorova, hammer thrower Gulfiya Khanafeyeva and discus thrower Darya Pishchalnikova would be provisionally suspended.
Russian track officials confirmed the suspensions and said they were a bitter blow to the Russian team's chances at the games.
"According to their latest results, they were considered to be real contenders for Olympic medals, including gold," All Russia Athletics Federation president Valentin Balakhnichev said.
SOVIET SPORTS MACHINE
The timing of the scandal is especially bad since Russia is actively seeking to recapture the glories of the old Soviet sports machine. Russian officials criticised the IAAF for making the announcement so close to the Beijing Games.
"There are many questions. The first is: What in fact happened? There will be a special inquiry," Russian Olympic Committee anti-doping chief Nikolay Durmanov said.
"A less important question but a more pertinent one is: Why is the issue of last year's tests emerging just a week ahead of the games? Couldn't this question have been discussed with us in May, June or March?"
The source said, however, time was needed to be fully and legally certain of their case.
"DNA tests do take time to be legally foolproof," the source said. "It was a cat and mouse game over 1 1/2 years not to make them suspicious."