Olympic champion Mariya Savinova spoke about doping in a German documentary.
Credit: Kirill Kudryavtsev

Update: The World Anti-Doping Agency issued a damning report on Monday recommending that the Russian Athletics Federation be banned from competing because of widespread and allegedly government-sanctioned drug use. 

MOSCOW, Russia — After a year of accusations they’ve been clamping down on internal dissent, bullying neighboring counties and kick-starting a new cold war, angry officials here have acted as if the international community has issued just about every indictment it could sling at Russia.

Now comes a German television documentary alleging the existence of a widespread doping culture in Russia, along with an official cover-up aimed at shielding the country’s premier athletes.

If true, the allegations would cast a major pall over the Russian sports world, still riding high after winning the medal count during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko pledged in a letter to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on Monday that the authorities would look into the claims.

But others here are having none of it.

“Right now it’s fashionable to blame Russia for no matter what, and it’s a shame they’re trying to carry this tendency over into sports, in which our country is undoubtedly one of the world leaders,” Vasiliy Shestakov, a member of parliament’s physical culture, sports and youth committee, told the TASS state news agency Monday.

“It seems there are no other ways left to poke us.”

Nearly a year of intense geopolitical wrangling has left Russia as hostile and defensive as ever.

Top officials here typically blame the West for provoking the crisis in Ukraine — where the Kremlin is nurturing a separatist insurgency — and dragging Russia into a new conflict aimed at crippling the country through economic sanctions.

But with the latest allegations over doping, at least some here apparently smell a plot to tarnish Russia through sport, too.

The two-part documentary — called “Top-secret doping: How Russia makes its winners” and shown on German public TV channel Das Erste last week — features Russian athletes and a former anti-doping official testifying about what they say is routine and officially sanctioned doping in Russian athletics.

Vitaliy Stepanov, formerly of the RUSADA anti-doping agency, even claimed officials issued orders to ignore positive drug test results by famous and up-and-coming athletes.

“You must dope. That’s how it is done in Russia,” he said, according to an English-language transcript of the broadcast.

“The officials and coaches clearly say by using natural ability you can only do so well. To get medals you need help. And the help is doping, prohibited substances.”

The documentary also features what it purports to be mobile phone footage of Olympic middle-distance runner Mariya Savinova speaking about doping and her coach, Vladimir Kazarin, in possession of banned substances.

The accusations have caused a stir among Western athletes and immediately drew fire from organizations such as WADA and the International Olympic Committee, which vowed swift action if the allegations are proven true.

In Russia, many observers are dismissing the allegations as revenge: the primary whistleblowers, including Olympic marathon runner Liliya Shobukhova, discus thrower Yevgeniya Pecherina, and Stepanov’s own wife, Yulia, a middle-distance runner, have all been punished for doping.

However, some sports officials, such as Valentin Balakhnichev, head of the Russian Athletics Federation, are downright furious.

He called the report a “provocation” and threatened legal action on charges of defamation because the documentary also implicates him in the scandal.

“The Russian Athletics Federation considers the airing of this film exclusively as a crudely planned attempt to blacken Russian athletics and Russian sport as a whole,” Balakhnichev said in a statement late last week.

The allegations arrive amid a politically charged atmosphere in which anti-Western sentiments are surging, thanks to a state media machine that regularly blames the West for most of Russia’s ills.

President Vladimir Putin himself used his annual state-of-the-union speech last Thursday to claim that even without Russia’s annexation of Crimea last March, the West “would have come up with another reason to contain Russia's growing capabilities.”

A majority of the population has subscribed to that narrative, but it’s usually the slavishly loyal political elite that sets the cue.

That doesn’t mean they’re not against doping.

Shestakov, a member of the ruling United Russia Party and president of the International Sambo Federation, said on Monday that Russia should fully commit itself to battling the illegal practice.

But he also warned against “double standards” — Western athletes dope, too — and hinted the film may be a “made-to-order” hatchet job.

He’s not alone.

Svetlana Zhurova, a former Olympic speed skater and a fellow parliamentarian, believes Western television networks are creating a pretext for foreign athletes to boycott all international competitions in Russia.

“According to my information, another series of films is being prepared about Russian athletes, not only involving doping scandals,” Zhurova, who is the deputy head of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, told the Interfax news agency Monday.

She suggested the European Speed Skating Championships, which Russia will host in early January, might be the starting point.

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To be fair, Zhurova may have reason to be suspicious: Several Dutch speed skaters reportedly announced they may ditch the competition, citing last July’s crash of Malaysian flight MH17, which carried nearly 200 Dutch citizens and is believed to have been shot down by a Russian missile.

The documentary also implicated the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in corrupt practices involving doping. But keeping the focus on Russia is apparently prompting officials such as Zhurova to remain wary of the international criticism.

“The scariest and most unpleasant thing is that when it comes to any foreigner doping, it doesn’t cause any such boisterous negative reaction,” she said.

“But when a similar situation involves even just one Russian athlete, then the entire Russian team is subject to the ‘terror.’”

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