Russian doping scandal spreads to wrestling, sports minister prepared to quit

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko speaks during an interview with Reuters in Moscow, Russia, in this March 11, 2016 file photo.
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko speaks during an interview with Reuters in Moscow, Russia, in this March 11, 2016 file photo. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's sports minister said on Tuesday (March 22) he was prepared to resign over a raging doping scandal in his country which could cost more Russian athletes their places at the Rio Olympics after "tens" more cases of cheating were exposed in wrestling.

Russian wrestlers may now join the country's track-and-field athletes in being barred from competing at the Games in August, after an internal Russian Wrestling Federation (WFR) investigation uncovered multiple doping cases, WFR President Mikhail Mamiashvili said.

The disclosure came a day after four Russian track-and-field athletes were exposed as having tested positive for the banned drug meldonium, further damaging Moscow's efforts to overturn a doping suspension in time for the Olympics starting in Rio de Janeiro on Aug 5.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday his sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, would remain in his position despite the scandal. Mutko later said, however, that he was prepared to end his eight years in the job if asked to do so.

"The country has a leadership who take these decisions. When I see that the matter concerns me, I will leave my post," R-Sport news agency quoted him as saying.

Russian sport was thrown into turmoil last year when a report by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) exposed endemic cheating and corruption in Russian athletics.

Russian athletes have been suspended from international competition and will miss the Olympics if the country cannot get the ban overturned - a humiliating blow to the pride and prestige of a sporting superpower.

Since then, at least 18 Russian sportsmen and women have tested positive for meldonium, complicating Russia's drive to prove itself compliant with international anti-doping standards.

Mamiashvili said two male wrestlers, 2014 world championship silver medallist Evgeny Saleev and 2015 World Cup silver medallist Sergei Semenov, had been caught using meldonium.

But he said the sport's doping problem was widespread. "There are tens of positive tests in the team, everyone is in a bad condition psychologically," Mamiashvili told R-Sport.

RIO GAMES

Talking to the state-owned TASS news agency about his team's chances of competing at the Rio Games, Mamiashvili said: "It may happen that simply none of us go."

The President of United World Wrestling (UWW), the sport's governing body, said he was very surprised by the positive tests.

"In the past in our world championships we had never had a positive test from a Russian athlete," Nenad Lalovic told Reuters.

He said UWW had urged national federations to step up testing and the positive cases showed that this was having an impact.

Lalovic said as things stood Russia had earned their Rio Games qualifying spots at the 2015 world championships in Las Vegas and the country could legally send a team of wrestlers to the Olympics.

"There is no reason (not to), they have legally qualified," he said, adding that all the medallists were tested at the Las Vegas competition.

"Should an athlete test positive now then Russia can replace them. In our sport they earn the place for the country not the individual athlete and then they have always a selection competition."

Meldonium, which is used to treat diabetes and low magnesium levels, was banned by WADA on Jan 1 after being linked to increased sporting performance.

It is particularly popular in Russia and the former Soviet Union, having been invented in Latvia and used to help Soviet soldiers fight at high altitude in the 1980s.

R-Sport reported on Monday that around 40 Russian athletes from more than 10 different sports had tested positive for meldonium in the first two months of 2016.