Doping-depleted Russian Olympic team heads to Rio

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, smiles after Russia's pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva spoke at the Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 27, 2016 during a reception for the Russia's Olympics team. (AP Photo)

MOSCOW — A depleted Russian team departed for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, missing dozens of athletes who were excluded amid the country’s doping scandal.

Team members left on a charter flight from Moscow’s Sheremetevo airport to Brazil, a day after an emotional farewell ceremony with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.

More than 100 athletes from what was originally a 387-strong team have been barred from competing in Rio by international sports federations under sanctions which most Russian athletes consider unfair.

“We’re after medals, that’s it,” handball player Anna Sen said. “We need to fight for those athletes who were disqualified.”

Volleyball player Sergei Tetyukhin, a four-time Olympic medalist, will be Russia’s flagbearer for the opening ceremony in Rio, according to an Instagram post by pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva.

Isinbayeva has become a de facto spokeswoman for Russian athletes excluded from the Olympics and gave a tearful address to the team in the Kremlin on Wednesday.

“Today, as never before, we need to stay united and become a family,” the 40-year-old Tetyukhin said, ignoring what he called “provocations addressed at our team and our mighty country.”

No track and field athletes were among the contingent heading for Rio, since the entire track team is banned from competing, except for a single U.S.-based long jumper, following revelations of widespread doping.

The track team did, however, attend the ceremonial farewell with Putin on Wednesday, when the Russian president branded restrictions on Russia as “pure discrimination.”

While Russia avoided a blanket ban from the games at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee board on Sunday, the IOC imposed new restrictions on Russia. International sports federations must now remove any athlete previously banned for doping or who was implicated in last week’s McLaren report alleging a mass cover up of failed drug tests.

Some federations have taken a tough line, with exclusions of much of Russia’s team from events such as rowing, canoeing and swimming. Other sports, such as judo and tennis, have allowed the entire Russian team to compete in their sport. These rulings must still be ratified by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Russia’s weightlifting team has been dogged by doping cases and faced further embarrassment Wednesday when retests of samples from the 2012 Olympics saw four Russians, including three medalists, test positive. The entire lifting team risks being banned from the Rio Games because of the large number of failures in retests from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

Putin last week called for the creation of a new state-backed anti-doping commission to draw up future strategy. In a clear sign of coordination, it was set up within hours under Vitaly Smirnov, a former Soviet sports minister and IOC member.

Smirnov told local media Thursday that the new commission would be independent of the government, despite containing several senior figures with links to the Kremlin. Smirnov also insisted the government was not involved in doping, despite allegations in World Anti-Doping Agency reports that Sports Ministry officials oversaw a mass doping program and a cover-up.

“We will welcome the arrival of WADA and we rule out any attempts at interference by the state or other structures,” he said in comments reported by the Tass news agency. “In Russia there is not and never has been any state support for doping.”

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