Russia switch ice hockey teams to avoid meldonium detection at world champs

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Moscow (AFP)

Russia replaced its entire U-18 world ice hockey championship team on Friday to "minimise" the risk of testing positive for banned drug meldonium, sports minister Vitaly Mutko said.

Rather than risking an international doping scandal as they wait to hear if they can compete in the Rio Olympics Russia will be represented instead by the U-17 side in the United States.

Russia has been rocked by sports doping scandals in recent months and Mutko said: "The point of changing the team is that if a group of athletes took meldonium, we don't know whether it will be detected."

"We are minimising the risks," Russian news agencies quoted him as saying.

Sports officials removed the team's coach and players on Thursday and replaced them with the younger squad to fly to Grand Forks in North Dakota.

Russian hockey federation president, legendary Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretyak, refused to address doping suspicions on Thursday.

He described the decision to field a younger team at the under 18 tournament as "tactical".

Tretyak added that the Russian federation had not conducted informal doping tests on the squad's players.

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) said it did not oppose the Russian changes and did not expect meldonium problems at the world championships.

Teams have until two hours before a competition meeting, usually held the night before the tournament starts, to finalise their roster, an IIHF spokesman Adam Steiss told AFP.

"Therefore at this point, Russia’s roster changes are the prerogative of the federation," he added.

"We are confident that regardless of any roster changes the country’s depth will allow them to ice a strong team."

Steiss also said all teams could expect drug tests in line with the World Anti-Doping Agency code.

"The participating teams at the world championship are aware that meldonium is on the prohibited substances list and we don’t expect any issues at the tournament."

AFP approached two players on Russia's original under 18 team, but both refused to comment.

The federation's honorary president, Alexander Steblin, was the first Russian official to say the move was related to meldonium, blaming the team's head coach for a situation he called a "catastrophe".

Since tennis star Maria Sharapova admitted last month she tested positive for meldonium at the Australian Open, a number of high-profile athletes -- including Olympic swimmer Yulia Efimova -- have also tested positive for the endurance-boosting drug.

Mutko said on Friday that 40 Russian athletes had tested positive for meldonium since a WADA ban came into force on January 1.

The minister said up to 90 percent of Russian athletes who tested positive for meldonium had underestimated how long it takes for the drug to leave the body.

The drug's manufacturer, the Latvian-based pharmaceutical company Grindeks, has said meldonium can remain in the body for several months after being consumed.

"If it wasn't for meldonium, we would be clean," Russian agencies quoted Mutko as saying.

Russia is also struggling to overturn a ban against its athletics federation so that it can take part in the Rio Olympics in August.

It was suspended in November over a WADA report alleging state-sponsored doping and mass corruption in track and field.

Four doping failures for meldonium among Russian athletes last month came as a potential blow to efforts to be reinstated by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

The IAAF will hold an extraordinary Council meeting in May when a decision on Russia's participation in the Games is expected to be taken.