Work stands idle at Russia's suspended anti-doping lab

Moscow (AFP) –


Work is scarce for the 52 staff of Russia's national anti-doping laboratory, suspended in November over evidence of state-sponsored cover-ups of doping among track and field athletes.

Stripped of its accreditation for non-compliance with international testing standards, the laboratory has only carried out some dozen minor blood tests this month, after the World Anti-Doping Agency softened its restrictions slightly.

By contrast, during the 2013 athletics world championships held in Moscow, the four-storey facility was testing some 400 samples a day.

Since then Russia has been rocked by a series of doping scandals that cast doubt on its participation in this summer's Rio Olympics.

The lab's former head, Grigory Rodchenkov, has detailed a systematic state-organised scheme to get round anti-doping regulations at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

After fleeing to the United States, he claimed the scheme focused on at least 15 medallists and involved the sports ministry and the FSB security service.

The laboratory's current staff -- which has remained intact since Rodchenkov's resignation in November -- has pledged to rebuild trust in the facility as Russia strives to have its athletics federation reinstated ahead of the Rio Olympics.

"We are trying to do everything to get back our credibility, for there to be trust in us," Grigory Krotov, the head of the laboratory's peptide doping and blood analysis department, told reporters in a room filled with test tubes, round-bottom flasks and freezers used to preserve samples and chemicals.

"We cooperate with WADA and are ready to fulfil all the regulations they are introducing. This is why we all stayed."

A bombshell report by an independent commission of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that led to Russia's suspension by the world athletics governing body in November said Rodchenkov had admitted to "intentionally destroying" 1,417 test samples ahead of an audit.

Krotov, who worked on the third-floor of the Sochi Olympic laboratory, told reporters on Tuesday he was "shocked" by Rodchenkov's allegations about Sochi.

"If it's true, he hid this and did it by himself," Krotov said, adding that his former boss was viewed by his colleagues as a "strange guy."

- A 'fresh page' -

Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko initially dismissed Rodchenkov's allegations as "absurd" but then pledged to assist WADA in its investigation.

Mutko on Tuesday denied the involvement of the Russian government in the Olympic scandal, stressing that Moscow had spent "colossal" sums to purchase the state-of-the-art testing equipment WADA had recommended.

"The International Olympic Committee (IOC) carried out the Olympic Games in Sochi. What is the state's responsibility?" Mutko said.

"As a government we don't know what the results (of the tests) are, this is not our property. It's the IOC's. We don't control anything here."

The absence of a WADA-accredited laboratory in the world's largest country has created issues for blood testing because international rules require the samples to reach a laboratory within 48 hours, Krotov said, adding a Russian laboratory was an important asset for WADA.

WADA has recommended that a foreign specialist be appointed to head the Moscow anti-doping laboratory, a proposal the acting director, Marina Dikunets, said she welcomed.

Such an appointment would "show the public that the laboratory works according to all the international standards and that it is open and transparent."

Dikunets said she was "very surprised" by Rodchenkov's allegations and denied any malpractice among her laboratory staff at the Sochi facility but declined to comment on Rodchenkov's work.

"Every employee who worked at the Olympic laboratory did their work professionally," she said. "I can't comment (on Rodchenkov's work) because I don't know."

Dikunets said she hoped the laboratory would regain its accreditation from WADA in November.

"We would like to start the new year on a fresh page," she said.

The world athletics governing body IAAF will rule next month whether to lift Russia's provisional suspension.

Members of an IAAF task force overseeing reforms are in Russia until Friday for a final visit before deciding whether Russian track and field stars can compete, Dmitry Shlyakhtin, the president of Russia's athletics federation, told AFP.