MOSCOW, Russia, August 5 – The World Athletics Championships, which begin this weekend, are the first of a series of high-profile international sports events to be held in Russia in the coming years and the biggest competition in Moscow since the 1980 Olympics.
In February next year, the Black Sea resort of Sochi hosts the Winter Olympics, while the most-watched sports event in the world — the football World Cup — comes to Russia in 2018.
Moscow has already held the indoor version of the World Athletics Championships in 2006 but the staging of the outdoor championships is a much more serious challenge for the organisers.
Russia is already touting its ability to host top sporting events after it organised the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Moscow in June and Universiade world student games in Kazan in July.
But international athletics’ biennial showpiece at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium has already been clouded by a series of doping scandals in Russia’s track and field disciplines in recent times.
Around 40 Russian athletes have been banned for doping violations in recent months, a development which led many to question the country’s suitability to stage the world event.
Some voices in athletics even called for Moscow to be stripped of its right to host the championships.
Russian athletes found to have doped include 2004 Olympic hammer champion Olga Kuzenkova and 2012 silver medallist in women’s discus, Daria Pishchalnikova. They have both been banned with Pishchalnikova handed a 10-year suspension for a second doping offence.
However, Russian athletics federation chief Valentin Balakhnichev told AFP that the country had dramatically changed its approach in the fight against doping and as a result more cheats were being exposed.
“Three years ago the national anti-doping agency RUSADA was created to keep the use of drugs in sports under control,” Balakhnichev said.
“It changed the situation radically as the Russian sports ministry upgraded the technical equipment of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory up to the highest modern standards and increased the level of its staff’s skills.
“Now it is paying off, as the laboratory is not only testing but also regularly working out new methods of analysis that are currently used worldwide.”
Russia’s athletics national squad manager Valentin Maslakov meanwhile said that he was expecting at least six gold medals at the world showpiece.
“The Russia’s athletics championships, which has recently took place in Luzhniki, showed that we can expect some of our athletes to show world-class results at the world championships,” he said.
“We hope to win at least six gold medals at the event as six of our athletes lead the season in their disciplines. But we will be happy if some of our athletes surpass our expectations.”
Russian race walkers, who traditionally dominate both men’s and women’s disciplines, are favourites in their events.
Both men’s and women’s high jumpers are also among the country’s gold medal hopes after Ivan Ukhov and Anna Chicherova struck gold at the London Olympics last year.
Results in the men’s javelin, women’s hammer throw and some of the running disciplines at the Russian national championships in July also made the country’s athletics chiefs feel optimistic.
Pole vault queen Yelena Isinbayeva has announced the world championships in Moscow will draw the curtain on her career, adding she was set to make her final competition memorable event for her fans.
“Everything is perfect here: the great arena, excellent surface… I’m looking forward to a classy performance here at the world championships,” she said.