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Seven Russian athletes suspended on doping-related charges

7/31/2008 - Olympic Sports

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- With only one week to go before the
Beijing Olympics, Russia suddenly has its own version of a BALCO
doping scandal involving some of the track team's biggest stars.

After a 1½-year investigation, the IAAF provisionally suspended
seven female Russian athletes Thursday, accusing them of tampering
with their urine samples. The list includes Yelena Soboleva, a
world record-holder and world champion middle-distance runner who
was favored to win both the 800 and 1,500 meters at the Olympics.

The seven athletes, many of them potential Olympic medalists,
come from several disciplines, from middle-distance running to the
hammer and discuss throw.

The athletes could still compete at the Beijing Games if they
were to get an emergency ruling lifting the provisional suspension.

Track and field competition begins in China on Aug. 15 and the
timing of the charges is unquestionably bad, though Canadian
sprinter Ben Johnson was caught doping at the 1988 Seoul Games
themselves. The sport is trying to recover from a recent spate of
recent doping scandals, and is hoping to use the Beijing Games to
reclaim some of its luster.

Earlier this month, coach Trevor Graham received a lifetime ban
from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for his role in helping his
athletes obtain performance-enhancing drugs as part of the scandal
that erupted with a raid on the BALCO headquarters in California in
2003. Related to the case, former Olympic champion Marion Jones has
admitted to doping and is currently in prison.

Track and field took a big plunge in credibility and popularity
because of that scandal and Thursday's events hurt its recovery. In
addition to the Russian scandal, the Romanian Olympic Committee
said middle-distance runners Elena Antoci and Cristina Vasiloiu
tested positive for the blood booster EPO and could be dropped from
that country's team pending a second test.

Suspicions about the Russians first surfaced in early 2007, when
a string of truly exceptional results were matched by a long string
of flawless negative testing results.

Attention increasingly focused on the Russian athletes, and
experts started comparing their in-competition samples, which were
clearly delivered by the athletes themselves, to those taken out of
competition.

"After a long and careful study it was clear it was not the
same people giving the sample," a source close to the
investigation told The Associated Press. The samples taken out of
competition dated from March to August 2007, the source said.

Based on those findings, the IAAF announced that Soboleva,
two-time world 1,500 champion Tatyana Tomashova, middle-distance
runners Yulia Fomenko, Svetlana Cherkasova and Olga Yegorova,
hammer thrower Gulfiya Khanafeyeva and discus thrower Darya
Pishchalnikova would be provisionally suspended.

Russian track officials confirmed the suspensions and said they
were a bitter blow to the Russian team's chances at the games.

"According to their latest results, they were considered to be
real contenders for Olympic medals, including gold," All Russia
Athletics Federation president Valentin Balakhnichev said.

The timing of the scandal is especially bad since Russia is
actively seeking to recapture the glories of the old Soviet sports
machine. Russian officials criticized the IAAF for making the
announcement so close to the Beijing Games.

"There are many questions. The first is: What in fact happened?
There will be a special inquiry," Russian Olympic Committee
anti-doping chief Nikolay Durmanov said.

"A less important question but a more pertinent one is: Why is
the issue of last year's tests emerging just a week ahead of the
games? Couldn't this question have been discussed with us in May,
June or March?"

The source close to the investigation said, however, time was
needed to be fully and legally certain of their case. "DNA tests
do take time to be legally foolproof," the source said.

The IAAF said in a statement that the matter would be turned
over to the All Russia Athletics Federation.

According to IAAF rules, athletes have up to 14 days to request
a hearing with their national federation. If a hearing is
requested, it must be held within two months.

Fomenko was second to Soboleva when she set the indoor world
record of 3 minutes, 57.71 seconds on March 9 in Valencia, Spain,
breaking her previous mark of 3:58.05.

At the time, other middle-distance runners were already
suspicious of the Russian results, claiming many of the sterling
times the runners were turning in could not have been set within
days by the same athlete.

"The accusations are curious," Soboleva said Thursday in an
interview on state-run television. "The time was carefully chosen
-- we practically could do nothing -- neither file an appeal nor look
into the case. We are simply put aside and our hands are tied."

Tomashova won world titles at the 2003 and '05 championships,
and won silver at the 2004 Athens Olympics, while Yegorova won the
5,000 at the 2001 Edmonton worlds and took silver in the 1,500 at
the 2005 Helsinki worlds and gold in 3,000 at the 2001 indoor
worlds. Pishchalnikova won the silver medal in the discus at the
2007 worlds and gold at the 2006 European championships, and
Khanafeyeva won silver in the hammer throw at the 2006 Europeans
and set a world record in her event in 2006.