Russia denies "systematic" doping

BEIJING Wed Aug 6, 2008 7:16am EDT

BEIJING (Reuters) - The Russian team on Wednesday denied accusations of systematic doping among its athletes and questioned the timing of the announcements days before the Beijing Olympics that several of them had failed drugs tests.

Some of the country's leading medal hopes, including track and field athletes, a cyclist and a race walker, have been expelled or suspended from the Games in the past week after failed tests and accusations of switching urine samples.

The head of Russia's athletics federation on Wednesday said doping was "a sporting crime" and called for criminal charges against athletes who use banned performance enhancing drugs.

When asked on Tuesday about the latest case of three walkers, the head of the International Olympic Committee's medical commission, Arne Ljungqvist, said it appeared to be an example of "systematic, planned doping".

Russian Olympic Committee spokesman Gennady Shvets said it was far too early to talk about any such thing.

"It is strange that someone has said there is systematic doping. These situations are very unpleasant but to say it is systematic is premature," he said.

"When in the United States they discovered the Balco laboratories, it was sad but they didn't say that the whole of U.S. sport was involved in doping," he added, referring to the San Francisco lab which provided top athletes with drugs.

Shvets said officials had known about the results for months and the decision to wait until just before the Games seemed to be designed to make life difficult for the Russian team.

"These results were known ages ago, (but) they decided to release them just before the Olympic Games," said Shvets.

"There is a feeling that they (officials) did it especially to create unpleasantness for us," he added.

"No one is excusing the athletes who broke the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) code."

PODIUM HOPEFULS

Russia, who along with the United States are the main challengers to host China's bid to top the medal standings, have been gradually dropping podium hopefuls in the run-up to the start of the Olympics on Friday.

Last week, seven leading female track and field athletes were provisionally banned by the IAAF, the sport's governing body, and charged with switching their out-of-competition urine samples.

In an interview on Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio station, Russian Athletics Federation (RAF) President Valentin Balakhnichev said recent doping scandals had cost the country at least five medals, and called for criminal sanction.

"There has to be some kind of weapon that will frighten those who don't have enough dignity to stop and for whom material profit is more powerful than moral gain," Balakhnichev said.

Russia was still counting on 20 podium appearances in athletics, he added.

The Russian cycling federation left medal hope Vladimir Gusev out of the Olympic team after his professional team fired him for what it called "irregular values" during routine testing.

Olympic race walker Vladimir Kanaikin was suspended after failing a dope test. Two other walkers, Viktor Burayev and Alexei Voevodin, also tested positive but had not made the team for Beijing.

(Additional reporting by Chris Baldwin in Moscow; Editing by Ed Osmond and Alex Richardson)

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