Soboleva calls ban "deliberate provocation"
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Yelena Soboleva denied on Friday she had manipulated her doping samples after the world indoor 1,500 meters champion and six other leading Russian women athletes were banned ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
"I call what is happening now a provocation staged deliberately to knock out the potential medalists right before the Olympics," Kommersant business daily quoted Soboleva as saying.
"All of us had the best chances to win medals in Beijing. I stress once again that I reject the accusations brought against me by the IAAF (athletics' world governing body).
"I also ask my fans to forgive me for being charged with what I am actually not guilty of."
Russian newspapers said the bans appeared to be a foreign plot to deprive the national team of at least five golds in Beijing. The Games start on August 8.
"Five of our golds have already been flushed down the drain," daily Izvestia said.
The seven banned are: twice world 1,500 meters champion Tatyana Tomashova, Soboleva, distance runners Yuliya Fomenko and Svetlana Cherkasova, European discus champion Darya Pishchalnikova, former hammer world record holder Gulfia Khanafeyeva and former world 5,000 meters champion Olga Yegorova. All except Cherkasova had qualified for the Olympics.
The athletes were charged with fraudulently substituting urine during the doping control process, and suspended by the IAAF. The Russian media alleged the athletes' samples had been manipulated by a western company.
"Switched" read a front-page banner headline in Sport-Express daily printed in large type normally reserved for the death of national leaders.
"We have yet to realize the scale of the catastrophe," the newspaper wrote. "It appears all of them (the female athletes) are merely hostages in somebody else's very big game."
Kommersant called the provisional ban "the biggest blow to Russia's Olympic team ... which is now sure to lack the golds it sorely needs to compete against the U.S. and Chinese teams".
Russia had originally expected to win about 90 medals in 20 events. It hoped its squad would trail only the United States and that host Olympic nation China would finish third in the medals table.
Soboleva, 25, has been on fire this season, posting the world's best times in the 1,500 and 800.
She smashed her own indoor 1,500m world record to win gold at the world indoor championships in Valencia in March, with Fomenko finishing second.
(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Robert Woodward)