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Dopey Russians caught out

Vladimir Putin has called for an investigation into allegations of state-sponsored drug cheating in Russian athletics, but the country's initial response was not quite so level-headed, as Fiona Clark discovers.

No one likes to be caught cheating. Let's face it, it's embarrassing, especially when it's on the

scale that the World Anti-doping Agency alleges in Russia.

But the Independent Commission's report really shouldn't have come as much of a surprise as its terms of reference were derived from a widely aired German documentary that revealed a culture of cheating that extended from the track to the testing lab. The WADA report set out to see if the allegations were based in fact: were there

breaches of WADA rules

or standard by athletes, coaches or labs? It discovered there were, and alleges those breaches couldn't have taken place without a blind eye or tacit approval from the top. Pretty much what the documentary showed.

Despite this, the initial response to the report was predictably defensive. The Kremlin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said the report was light on evidence and any charges against Russia were "groundless." The sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, said it was "fictional" and yet another political stunt aimed to discredit Russia. It doesn't matter what Russia does, "everything is bad," according to the minister who is also on the FIFA executive committee.

Hysteria

Then the Russian media chimed in, accusing the West of an orchestrated and hysterical plot against Russia. The online newspaper "Gazeta.ru" gave a round-up of foreign coverage claiming the UK press had printed "loud" and "screaming" headlines (such as "The Olympics in London was sabotaged [by] Russian doping" in "The Guardian"), while a Russia Today commentator didn't seem to understand the terms of reference of the investigating committee and wondered whether it was not yet another Russia-bashing exercise.

His sentiment was echoed by Mutko, who claimed Russia wasn't the only country with a doping problem - everyone's doing it so why just pick on us?

two men standing next to each other copyright: AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin

"Stop picking on us"

The answer is very simple. There were some high quality whistleblowers armed with recorded evidence on which to base the investigation. But herein lies the problem for the deputy editor of Russia's largest sports website site, Championat.com, Yevgeny Slusarenko. He says Russia was expecting much more from what he says was a $1.5-million investigation.

"The Russian side was really looking forward to see a real investigation - not just a parody of a James Bond film. It was more of a rewrite of the documentary. Ten months of investigation and it ended up simply being a rewrite of the film script and that was a surprise," Slusarenko told DW.

He agrees Russia's initial reaction should have been a little more "reserved," and adds that since the documentary there have been some significant changes in the way the athletics is run. "Obviously you can't make it clean overnight - not even in six months to a year. … No doubt Russia has problems with doping and their refusal to admit it is because it doesn't want to appear like the doping empire of evil, because it's not true."

But he says the

call for an internal investigation

marks a turn in Russia's approach. Kremlin sources from a meeting between Putin - whose image is closely associated with sport - and top sporting officials claim the president told them in no uncertain terms to read the report carefully and work closely with the international community to clean the systems up. After all, there's a lot riding on it - the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the Rio Olympics and Russia's reputation.

footballers looking at a screen

Russia's reputation at big sports events is on the line

Whistleblowers

But what's not so well-protected is the reputation of the whistleblowers. The main couple involved were Yulia Stepanova and her husband Vitaly Stepanov. Julia, an 800-1500m European and World champion, was stripped of all her awards from 2011 after she received a two-year ban from competition due to abnormalities in what's known as her "biological passport" - a list of her test results.

Her husband, Vitaly, worked at the Russian anti-doping agency, RUSADA. The couple, backed by secret recordings of conversations with coaches and other athletes, alleged there was wide-scale doping of athletes and that paying bribes to labs officials ensured tests "wouldn't be a problem." They first made these claims in the documentary and then to WADA's investigating committee.

But the Russian media has questioned their motives, saying Yulia Stepanova was little more than a drug cheat herself who changed her tune once she was caught, the inference being the motive of financial gain through paid interviews.

According to Slusarenko, who has interviewed the couple himself (and paid the price by being successfully sued by RUSADA), the couple are in hiding. "In my opinion Vitaly and his wife Yulia achieved one thing - not cleaning up Russian sport but to become victims and suffer persecution for telling the truth. They played that role and nothing more."

But their actions have set a process in motion. Like US cycling, which is still climbing out of a serious doping scandal, there is a road map for Russia to follow as it sets out to change its sporting "win-at-all-costs" culture. The question is, how far down that road is it willing to go?

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