Russia faces tough task overturning ban as Rio Olympics decision looms
Three months into the job, the 48-year-old bureaucrat is working to overturn a ban by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) over allegations of systematic doping that could see Russian track and field stars sidelined from the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August.
While world track and field authorities remain sceptical about the country’s prospect of competing in Rio, Shlyakhtin insisted in an interview with AFP that Moscow is making progress.
“The process has started, maybe not as fast we would have wanted,” Shlyakhtin told AFP. “Of course we have lots to do. But many things are being done.”
Shlyakhtin -- a low-profile junior runner whose election came as a surprise to Russia’s athletics world -- told Russian media upon his election that there was a “50 to 60 percent” chance the country would see its track and field stars in Rio.
On Thursday he is more optimistic that Russia will take part in the Games but shies away from providing a detailed assessment of the progress made and the work that lies ahead.
“To say which stage we are at now would be biased and wrong,” he added.
The current turmoil in Russian athletics was sparked when a report from a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) independent commission published in November laid bare evidence of state-sponsored doping and high-level corruption in sport in the country.
The report alleged that senior ARAF officials enabled the use of performance-enhancing drugs and covered up doping violations, among other damning accusations.
To compete at Rio, Russia’s athletics federation must now fulfil the reinstatement requirements set out by the IAAF, including severing its ties with staff with any past involvement in doping, and abide by all WADA regulations.
The IAAF recognised last month that Russia has shown “significant progress” in the wake of its November suspension.
But Rune Andersen, the independent chair of the IAAF Taskforce overseeing the reform process, nonetheless “stressed that there is still considerable work to be done in order to meet the reinstatement conditions,” the IAAF told AFP.
The taskforce is set to make its next visit Moscow later this month before the IAAF holds an extraordinary Council meeting in May where a decision on Russia’s participation in the Games is expected to be taken.
Shlyakhtin said ARAF was focused on regaining IAAF membership by changing attitudes on doping among the country’s track and field coaches.
“There needs to be a completely new approach,” he said, adding that some 50 foreign specialists would be brought in to strengthen anti-doping practices. “We have to educate a group of completely new people who won’t think that results cannot be achieved without drugs.” Former WADA president Dick Pound, who headed the agency’s independent commission, told AFP last month that Russia was “changing deckchairs on the Titanic” rather than working to overturn its suspension and that the Russian track team “may not make it” to Rio.
“If the IAAF is not willing to lift the suspension of ARAF prior to the Rio Games, no entries from ARAF will be allowed to participate in the Games,” Pound wrote to AFP in an e-mail last week, adding that Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko “tends to be all over the map” in his statements on the country’s fight against doping.
Mutko in November dismissed the WADA report as based on “unconfirmed facts” before the sports ministry expressed in a statement its “full support for the recommendations of the commission” and its willingness to carry them out.
But as Russia faces an uphill battle to revamp its anti-doping programme, four doping failures for the banned drug meldonium among Russian track and field athletes last month come as a potential blow to efforts to overturn the ban. ARAF confirmed the cases but did not identify the four athletes who tested positive.
Shlyakhtin said the meldonium cases were unlikely to play into Russia’s chances of being reinstated before Rio.
Mutko said last week that 30 Russian athletes had tested positive for meldonium since the WADA ban on the endurance-boosting drug came into effect on January 1.
ARAF said in a statement it was conducting a “thorough investigation” into the cases and reiterated it had repeatedly warned athletes and trainers that meldonium was being banned.