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Russia’s Olympic Committee chief Alexander Zhukov in an exclusive interview has told TASS about the details of Russian athletes' ban on participation in the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio, his ancestry, and his passion for golf.
On the “Olym-peccable Team”, WADA, black lists, scales and swings
- So was the experience worth it? And what exactly was it worth?
- It depends on whose experience you are referring to – my own or the Russian athletes’.
- I’m referring to the whole Russian team, which some of our media talking heads have dubbed Olym-peccable.
- In reality, the team was impeccable. Besides, it was also absolutely competitive and doping-free. Contrary to all the gloomy forecasts and speculations to the effect that Russian athletes allegedly owe their achievements to a “state-run doping program.” Our team in Rio de Janeiro won 56 medals, including nineteen gold ones. I believe our guys gave a glittering performance.
Indeed, the experience we gained at the Rio Olympics was colossal. Not only at the competitions, but during the whole period that had preceded the events. On the eve of the competition, the points of contention were the disqualification of the Russian Olympic Committee and the blackballing of the whole Russian team from the participants’ list. That was the gist of the demands we heard from WADA, the IOC’s Athletes Commission and the national anti-doping committees of fourteen countries, including Austria, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Spain, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United States. The charges against us were based on the report authored by the independent commission under Richard McLaren. His message looked pretty much like an ultimatum to IOC President Thomas Bach. It came on the eve of the emergency meeting of the IOC’s Executive Board in Lausanne on July 21. The threat of being left overboard looked extremely serious. I then addressed the IOC Executive Board to recall that for the previous six months the Russian anti-doping system had been under the full control of the British anti-doping agency, UKAD, that all probes of our athletes had been taken by foreign doping officers and brought to foreign laboratories for testing. Russian athletes participating in international tournaments, I said, were subject to systematic doping tests. Consequently, there were no reasons whatsoever to suspect that they had been not tested properly. It would be utterly wrong to introduce collective responsibility for somebody else’s faults. The rights of “clean” Russian athletes, who had never used doping, should be protected, as well as the rights of their foreign counterparts. I also said it would look strange if US sprinters Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin, repeatedly found guilty of doping violations, were allowed to come to Rio, while Yelena Isinbayeva and Sergey Shubenkov, who had never had any problems with WADA or RUSADA, had to stay at home.
With just two weeks to go before the Games began, the IOC Executive Board turned an attentive ear to our arguments and ruled that Russian athletes would be allowed to participate in the Olympics on the condition of meeting certain conditions.
- Were you satisfied?
- An overall ban was the sole alternative. We reacted to that as a positive move. But the restrictions we faced were rather harsh. In fact, each Russian athlete was expected to prove he was doping-free and the international federations concerned were to reaffirm this. The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) suspended the membership of the All-Russia Athletic Federation (ARAF) back last year. It had put forward a number of demands and most of them had been met by last summer. I’m referring to the multiple doping tests our track-and-field athletes had to undergo between competitions both inside and outside Russia and to the suspension of all those who had ever violated anti-doping rules. We presented a list of 68 track-and-field athletes, but then all of a sudden the IAAF declared: the Olympics would be open only to those Russians who had stayed abroad and trained there for the previous several years. It goes without saying that that condition, established in retrospect, was impossible to meet.
- But most athletes in other sports managed to get through the door at the very last moment, as it was about to be shut in their face…
- Now, that it is all over, I can tell how it really happened … When the IOC empowered the international federations to decide whether to let Russian athletes compete or not, I heard many say that the Russians would manage to put together a team of forty at the most. Then the list grew to 150… In the end, Russia sent a team of 280 athletes to Rio.
Each international federation had to be contacted separately. There where relations were constructive everything was far easier. Negotiating with the others was not easy at all. First we’d been told that only those who passed doping tests for the previous six months abroad would be allowed to compete. We looked into the matter and it turned out that in handball seven of our women players had not been tested at all, neither at home nor abroad. We were told to find substitutes who had successfully passed doping tests to replace these seven. But how could this have been done? The coach, Yevgeny Trefilov, didn’t have a bench that long. And nobody else had! It took quite an effort to explain to our counterparts that in team sports there are no comprehensive, wholesale doping tests. Once a match is over, two or three players are selected for testing and that’s standard practice. The same happened in men’s volleyball, where eight players had never been probed over doping. Once again we were forced to explain that no team in the world has ever taken regular and comprehensive doping tests. In the end, we came to the conclusion that each sport must be treated individually and other teams taken into account as benchmarks. If our state of affairs does not constitute a breach of the established practice, Russians can be allowed to compete.
That’s how it all proceeded round after round. It took a while to iron out relations with FINA (the international governing body of swimming, diving, water polo, synchronized swimming and open water swimming). The McLaren report allegedly mentioned some athletes, for instance, swimmers Vladimir Morozov and Nikita Lobintsev. It was the same old story again - all those mentioned would not go to Rio. We asked what the report had stated in particular and in what context.
- Did you get a chance to see the full text of the WADA commission’s report?
- Of course. Here it is, on my desk. I can give it to you to read. But you won’t see any names there.
- Where did they come from then?
- From the notebooks of the well-known informers…
Later, McLaren would say that his commission had no time to look into the cases of individual athletes. Yet, the blacklist turned up.
To put it in a nutshell, FINA made an official request for explanations on what exactly the Russian swimmers were to blame for. But, no reply followed. Then the federation told the McLaren Commission: “Sorry, but we can’t help.” And the Court of Arbitration for Sport allowed Morozov and Lobintsev to compete.
Our envoys to other sports federations then started acting in the same fashion. Individual lawsuits were filed at the CAS and many of the cases were won.
A final decision regarding the Russian team was made by a special IOC troika – the head of the IOC’s Medical Commission, Ugur Erdener, of Turkey, IOC Board member Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., and the commission’s chief, Claudia Bokel, one of our main opponents. Bokel was adamant that the whole Russian team should be banned from the Olympics. In a word, the scales could have swayed either way, at any moment.
In fact, we lost all track-and-field athletes, except for Klishina, who has long lived and trained in the United States, and all weight-lifters. But the situation in the latter sport, it was really disastrous.
In all other disciplines, we managed to protect a large group of our team’s members. Possibly, except for rowing. The situation there was basically normal but, sadly, our federation and the international one proved unable to find a common language. Most Russian rowers passed many doping tests of late, but the FISA – the international rowing federation, refused to recognize them, and the Russian federation failed to protect the athletes’ rights.
The situation in gymnastics – artistic and rhythmic – was not simple, either. In modern rhythmic gymnastics, some participants are quite young. So far they’ve had a chance to participate in just a couple of senior international tournaments. Naturally, there was no chance for them to pass enough doping tests. We were told: go and find substitutes. But how can that be done in team events, where synchronization and timing are expected to have clock-work precision? Just one dropout may ruin the whole team. We proposed a solution, we made extra doping tests while some were still in training in Portugal, and others, in Brazil. The decision-makers agreed to meet us halfway and eventually allowed everybody to participate without exceptions.
Some of our wrestlers remained in limbo up to the last moment. But everything was corrected on time…
In Rio, our team was checked far more often than any other team. We, nevertheless, were prepared for that. As a result, the athletes displayed greater unity and grew stronger. I use the word “team” in the board sense – the athletes, the coaches, the medical staff, the federations’ leaders and the Russian Olympic Committee.
- Would it be correct to say that the Russian Olympic Committee and Alexander Zhukov have done a far better job than the Russian Paralympic Committee and its chief Vladimir Lukin? The Olympic team was eventually allowed to go to Rio, while the parathletes were denied participation.
The decision to keep our team away was made by just one man, Philip Craven, the IPC president, at his sole discretion
- There is nothing to compare. The IOC and the IPC have different structures and work differently. Putting pressures on a collective body is far more difficult than on one person. The decision to keep our team away was made by just one man, Philip Craven, the IPC president, at his sole discretion. And the political pressures on him, including the campaign in the western media, were colossal, one can be sure about that. The IOC placed sports interests above anything else, it tried really hard to keep the Olympic movement united and preserve Russia’s membership at that movement. The IPC, on the other hand, succumbed to pressures, so there you have it.
Amazingly, at the IOC session, Craven voted for letting clean Russian athletes compete in Rio, but at the same time he stripped Russian parathletes of this right… I am certain that his decision was wrong and history will prove it. The McLaren report contains no significant criticism of the RPC. Consequently, all of the repressive measures that followed were not legitimate.
I’m at a loss for words to say what has been written and is still being written in the Western media about Thomas Bach in retaliation for the IOC’s decision against disqualifying Russia. It’s just hair-raising! It’s beyond good and evil! In reality, Bach did a lot to prevent a split and preserve the Games. Now he is being accused of playing into Russia’s hands.
- Have they tried to take digs at you?
The IOC supported Russia. Only Adam Penguilly, of Britain, a member of the IOC Athletes’ Commission was against
- Non-stop! Whenever foreign journalists came up to me, I explained Russia’s stance in detail. But I’d already said the same things at the IOC session that was telecast live. Everyone who cared could easily hear that in our opinion the Olympic movement was exposed to unprecedented pressures and living through the most dramatic moment in modern sports history. Something of that sort happened in the early 1980s, when the Socialist bloc countries missed the Los Angeles Olympics. That was done in retaliation for the boycott of the Moscow Olympics. No reruns should ever be allowed.
The IOC supported Russia. The delegates almost unanimously voted in our favor. Only Adam Penguilly, of Britain, a member of the IOC Athletes’ Commission was against.
- A couple of months before Rio, when our track-and-field athletes were already having problems, you told me that it would be wrong to look for a political component in what was going on. Now you’ve changed your mind…
- But how can it be otherwise at a time when the sports ministers of some countries have put their signatures on official demands for barring Russia from the Games, when US senators said in public the United States was paying money to WADA when the agency was too slow to consider suspicions on Russian athletes being in breach of doping rules and even refrained from a decision on their disqualification? That’s politics. And the International Paralympic Committee’s decision to prohibit all of our athletes with disabilities from competing in Rio without presenting any reasons or plausible explanations is also very far from real sportsmanship.