Russia to make doping illegal

The Russian government plans to make doping a criminal offence by 2017

The Russian government is trying to push through legislation that will make doping a criminal offence by 2017.

With Russian sport in crisis, senior officials have accepted that radical action is needed to restore the country's reputation.

The proposed law will focus on administrators, coaches and support staff, as opposed to athletes, with sanctions ranging from fines to prison sentences.

"We understand that we have a huge problem," said Natalia Zhelanova, an anti-doping advisor to the Russian Sports Ministry.

"It's not only our problem - we know it's probably the same in other countries too - but we are only responsible for our country and our issues.

"So we are trying everything to fix our problems and clean (our) house.

"Of course, (the situation) is bad but every crisis can be a chance to make quick changes."

Doping is already a criminal offence in several European countries and British Prime Minister David Cameron has suggested the UK may follow suit.

But most anti-doping experts are opposed to the idea, believing it is best left to sport, with laws already in place to cover any criminal acts involved. They also point out there have been almost no successful prosecutions.

There have been allegations of widespread cheating in Russian sport for years but the current crisis started in 2014 with the broadcast of a German documentary based on testimony and video evidence from two whistleblowers: former Russian anti-doping official Vitaly Stepanov and his wife Yuliya, a middle-distance runner.

They revealed a system where athletes were given little choice by their coaches on whether to dope or not, drugs were provided by anti-doping scientists and the international federation blackmailed athletes to hide positive tests.

Since then, the revelations have come thick and fast, and in late 2015 an independent investigation by the World Anti-Doping Agency backed the Stepanovs' story.

This led to the All-Russian Athletics Federation being suspended from competition, Russian's anti-doping agency being shut down and Moscow's drug-testing laboratory losing its licence.

Since then, new investigations have been opened domestically and abroad, with the International Olympic Committee recently asking WADA to probe claims of state-sponsored cheating at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

Anti-doping work in Russia in the build-up to this summer's Olympics and Paralaympics in Rio is being overseen by UK Anti-Doping, with the actual testing conducted by Swedish firm IDTM. Russia is footing the bill.

Having already missed the World Indoor Championships in March, a decision on whether to reinstate Russia's track and field stars in time for Rio will be announced on June 17.

That decision hinges on a report from an International Association of Athletics Federations task force, led by Norwegian expert Rune Andersen, that has been inspecting Russia's attempts to rebuild its anti-doping operation.

Recent media reports have suggested just how difficult that will be for a country of Russia's size, complexity and bruised feelings.

This was underlined when WADA released figures for the first six months of the provisional anti-doping regime in Russia that revealed the total number of tests had fallen by two thirds.

Speaking to journalists in Moscow, Zhelanova confirmed there had been some issues over late payments to IDTM staff but these were because of "small details" to do with receipts and had been resolved.

She also said the ministry had been "surprised" to read about the problems met when a doping control officer tried to test a Paralympic athlete in one of Russia's militarily-sensitive "closed cities"

Zhelanova said it had been agreed with WADA that a list of anti-doping staff who needed access to a "closed city" would be provided to the authorities but that list only arrived on May 6. All those listed can now visit unannounced.

The anti-doping advisor, who has started posting anti-doping updates on Twitter in English and Russian, admitted the country faced a major challenge in educating athletes, coaches and sports fans about what is acceptable in the pursuit of success, but that it was committed to doing so.

And part of that process is a reassessment of how whistleblowers are treated.

Russian politicians have denounced the Stepanovs as "scoundrels" and called the former head of Russia's anti-doping lab Grigory Rodchenkov, the source of the Sochi claims, a "defector" for fleeing to the US.

"We want to build a system where people with high moral codes can speak out and maybe become heroes," she said.

"But most of all we want to remove people who break the rules from the system."

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