MOSCOW >> As far as Vladimir Putin’s anti-doping troubleshooter is concerned, Russia’s doping problems are nothing more than a “glitch.”
Brought out of retirement by Putin to lead Russia’s future strategy on doping, 81-year-old Vitaly Smirnov is being called on to use his contacts from five decades in Olympic politics to lobby for Russian interests and play down the accusations of state-sponsored cheating.
Even as Smirnov tries to build bridges with the IOC and World Anti-Doping Agency, and plans to address WADA’s board on Sunday, Smirnov vehemently denies that the Russian government ran an industrial-scale doping program and cover-up, including at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
“What has happened is a glitch. It doesn’t have roots in any kind of practice which was happening over a long period of time,” Smirnov, a former Soviet minister who spent 44 years as an International Olympic Committee member, told The Associated Press in an interview in his spacious office at the Russian Olympic Committee. “There was no organized doping system on the state level. We believe that the participants in this were individuals, who were pursuing their own goals.”
Putin’s love of sports as a judo black belt and recreational hockey player means the Russian government couldn’t have sponsored an East German-style doping scheme, Smirnov said.
“I’ve known our president for 25 years. I got to know him when we were preparing the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg in 1994. I know him still. I know he’s an athlete,” Smirnov says he told Richard McLaren, the Canadian lawyer who produced the WADA report accusing Russian officials of complicity. “And as an athlete and head of state, it’s incompatible.”
Among those named in McLaren’s report in July were Deputy Sports Minister Yuri Nagornykh and the ministry’s anti-doping adviser, Nataliya Zhelanova, both of whom are facing investigations from the Russian authorities and have since left their jobs. Even if officials like Nagornykh and Zhelanova are found to have been complicit, they should be seen as bad apples rather than part of a government conspiracy, Smirnov argues.
“Certain officials … it doesn’t mean the whole system, the whole ministry was taking part,” he said.
The second part of McLaren’s report is due out next month and could further tarnish the legacy of the Sochi Games. Smirnov has been in contact with McLaren and WADA President Craig Reedie.
However, Smirnov is scathing in his condemnation for Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory who turned star witness for WADA. Rodchenkov said he was involved in state-backed doping for years, providing doping substances to athletes and helping swap dirty samples for clean ones at the Sochi Games.
Now living in the United States, Rochenkov is facing an investigation by Russian authorities over the destruction of doping samples.
Smirnov suggests Rodchenkov was motivated by money, not Russian state prestige.
“If you take the case of Rodchenkov, there’s pure criminality. They were just, over the course of a fairly long period of time, falsifying results and getting money for that,” Smirnov said, later adding: “I am counting on objectivity in this whole case. The McLaren report is sadly built on the evidence of just one man. That man is facing a criminal case and an investigation is under way.”
Formally, Smirnov’s role is as head of the Independent Public Anti-Doping Commission, a body set up at Putin’s suggestion and backed by the Russian Olympic Committee to lead the charge against what the Russian government perceives as unfair accusations. Putin didn’t formally appoint Smirnov, but nominated him on state TV as a man with an “absolutely unimpeachable reputation.” He was swiftly approved.
The commission, which last met in October, includes numerous sports officials but also doctors, a state TV executive and even a concert pianist, though none of the commission’s members are anti-doping scientists.
“Our commission is absolutely independent. The commission contains people, many of whom have no connection to sport at all, but carry a lot of weight in society,” Smirnov said, defending the participation of pianist Denis Matsuev. “He’s not just there because he can play 47 piano concertos, but because he loves sport” and was invited to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics because of his musical skill, Smirnov added, though the commission also works with two experts from Australia and Lithuania sent by WADA to Russia to help with reforms.
Smirnov is eager to repair relations with the IOC and WADA after a year of fierce rhetoric on all sides, and refers to former WADA president Dick Pound, author of last year’s first report into Russian doping, as “my old friend.” In a recent conversation with Reedie, Smirnov offered to appoint a foreigner to Rodchenkov’s old job as head of the Moscow lab to reactivate its “colossal” capacity of 20,000 tests a year.
Smirnov’s overall message is clear though — Russia is not a country of drug cheats.
“In the spirit of our people there is nothing about trying to deceive, to find a dishonest shortcut,” he said.