Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Aug 4 – Russia vowed to win a hatful of medals and hit out at the expulsion of some of their top athletes on Thursday as they announced their smallest Olympic team in 104 years after a major doping scandal.
Despite drugs investigations which have robbed Russia of nearly a third of its original team, the mood in the camp was bullish on the eve of the Rio Games’ gala opening.
Russian Olympic gold medal-winners said the team had been galvanised by the fall-out of revelations of state-orchestrated doping on a grand scale.
The ensuing crackdown on Russia’s team has slashed numbers from 389 to 271, the fewest since the pre-World War I Olympics of 1912 when they competed as the Russian Empire.
But Elena Zamolodchikova, a two-time gymnastics gold medallist, said Russia was determined to finish top-10 on the medals table, a position they have occupied since the 1950s.
“Yes, sure,” Zamolodchikova told AFP at the Russia House team base at Rio’s Copacabana, when asked if they would stay in the top 10.
“We’ll do our best and I’m sure we’ll be in the top 10. Knowing the Russian character, we will compete.”
Former pistol champion Mikhail Nestruyev said Russia expected to win “many” medals, adding that the troubled build-up had given them added incentive to do well.
“We’re a small team but we have strong sportspeople,” he said. “I think this tense atmosphere has done us some good. Now all athletes are much stronger.”
Russia entered 389 athletes but many competitors implicated in last month’s bombshell World Anti-Doping Agency report, which uncovered state-backed drug cheating, have been eliminated by sports federations.
A three-member International Olympic Committee panel reviewed the list submitted by the federations and announced a final figure of 271 on Thursday.
Russia’s track and field team had already been suspended in separate action by the sport’s governing body, the IAAF, following similar revelations of state-backed doping last year.
– ‘What goes around, comes around’ –
Russian Olympic Committee president Alexander Zhukov took a swipe at the track and field ban, which affects top stars like pole vault world record-holder Yelena Isinbayeva and 110m hurdles world champion Sergey Shubenkov.
Zhukov said it was “unfair” that athletes from other countries who have previously served drugs bans, such as American sprinter Justin Gatlin, will compete in Rio.
“We think it’s unfair that some Russian athletes like Yelena Isinbayeva and Shubenkov, who have never been accused of doping, are not allowed to compete this time,” Zhukov told a press conference.
“However in contrast some other athletes, like the American runner Gatlin, have been admitted to the Games.”
Russian swimming great Alexander Popov also hit out at the track and field ban and levelled a personal attack on Britain’s Sebastian Coe, president of the IAAF.
“I hope that he will not regret his decision about Russian athletes because as you can say, what goes around comes around,” Popov said of Coe earlier.
“I hope that he will sleep well at night,” the four-time gold-medallist added, in comments after an International Olympic Committee (IOC) session in Rio.
Among 31 swimmers cleared by the investigation are Vladimir Morozov and Nikita Lobintsev, who were initially banned.
While all Russian weightlifters have been banned, all of the country’s boxers have been allowed to compete.
World Sailing has also let a competitor initially banned back into the contest.
“The Russian team may have experienced the toughest checks of the Olympics, because they had to go through multiple tests and checked,” Zhukov said.
“On top of all that, Russian athletes are going through additional testing which is taking place at the Olympic village.
“So as of now, the Russian team is probably the cleanest in Rio.”