Olympics: Russia finally makes strides in anti-doping fight

Russia, for years after the fall of the Soviet Union notorious as one of the world's worst offenders in the fight against doping in sport, is finally making progress to crack down on drug cheats at home ahead of the Winter Olympics.

Critics point to the fact that several-high profile dope cheats are still being uncovered every year in Russia but sports officials in the country say that this is evidence that a revamped anti-doping system is finally working.

Patrick Schamasch was in 2008 the medical and scientific director of the International Olympic Committee and declared then that Russia was a country "where no control is possible and where the lives of testers is even in danger."

But it was in 2008, a year after Russia was awarded the right to host the Winter Olympics that will open in 100 days, that the authorities created the country's first anti-doping agency Rusada to fight against an increasing blight on sport.

"The Russian authorities understood the warning signal that was sounded by the Olympic Committee," Schamasch told AFP in a telephone interview.

Since then Russia has taken important measures in the fight against doping, allowing the free movement of samples in and out of Russia as well as testers.

"This is important progress," Schamasch said.

The Winter Olympics will be a huge test of Russia's progress in this regard, with even one positive doping test of any high-profile Russian athlete likely to tarnish the entire event.

No fewer than 600 people will be employed to carry out doping tests while over 50 people will work in a brand-new laboratory in Sochi itself specially built for the purpose, the executive director of Rusada, Nikita Kamayev told AFP.

Rusada has since 2009 imposed doping sanctions against 200 Russian athletes, who have mostly been suspended for a career-busting 10 years, although some have been disqualified for life.

The agency carried out 22,000 anti-doping tests in 2012.

Russia has been dogged by image problems over doping inherited from the Soviet Union, where the achievements of many athletes are suspected to have been boosted by drug taking.

'Change the attitudes'

Schamasch said he believed that anti-doping controls would be carried out "perfectly" in Sochi, adding that Russia had already shown its capabilities with its work at the world athletics championships in Moscow this August.

The Russian authorities have "understood well the problem of doping" and absolutely do not want Russia to be in the firing line over alleged cheating at top events, he added.

"Rusada is a very efficient agency and well-structured, with people at its head who understand the subject very well," he said.

Financed almost exclusively by the state, Rusada puts its emphasis on prevention and educating sportsmen and women, Kamayev said.

"The most important thing is to change the attitude of athletes towards doping, to explain the dangers to them and the possible sanctions and the risks that they are taking," he said.

The task is particularly acute for young sportspeople in the provinces because training structures and their financing have been very badly thought out, Kamayev added.

"The trainers and heads of teams of youths expect results at regional level very quickly and they are receiving money and compensation at that level."

"They are not so interested in getting to Olympic level as there is the great risk of anti-doping tests," he explained. But at regional level in Russia, "the controls are almost non-existent due to a lack of staff."

Russia currently has 23 full-time testers in Moscow and some 50 for the rest of the country's regions.

Schamasch said that the sheer size of the country covering nine timezones is a problem and there is a need to increase the reach of the controls which so far are limited to Moscow, Saint Petersburg and some other large cities.

"But Russia has also started to make a great clearing out of its old trainers who had the mentality of the old regime," he said, adding that there were likely to be "some black sheep to eliminate."