Russia's depleted Olympic team heads for Rio

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.

Russia's synchronised swimming Olympic team members attend a farewell ceremony before the national team's departure to Rio 2016 Olympics at Sheremetyevo International Airport outside Moscow on Thursday.   -  Reuters

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 as she prepared to board the flight. “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 pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva.

Isinbayeva, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, 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.”

World champions competed against regional-level athletes in front of around 150 spectators in an event hastily organized after the track team’s ban was upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) last week.

Isinbayeva watched from the sidelines, vowing defiance and legal action.

“You can’t break Russians,” she said. “People have tried to break us down, but it’s never worked ... What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

Isinbayeva added that she plans to file another appeal to CAS and also the European Court of Human Rights.

“My conscience is clean,” said long jumper Vasily Kopeikin, another athlete barred from Rio. “Time will show those people who suspended us.”

Kopeikin added that he would not watch any Olympic events in which Russia was not taking part.

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 a report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency that accused Russia of a mass cover-up of failed drug tests.

Some federations have taken a tough line, excluding many Russian team members 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 CAS.

Some Russian athletes had flown to Rio in advance of the main delegation, including gymnasts and swimmers. Russia’s head swim coach Sergei Kolmogorov told Russian agency R—Sport that swimmers barred from the games, including world 100-meter breaststroke champion Yulia Efimova, were at a pre—Olympic training camp in Brazil in the hope of a late reprieve to allow them to race in Rio.

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 that the government was not involved in doping, despite allegations in the report for WADA by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren 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 Russia there is not and never has been any state support for doping.”

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