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Snow Job Russian howls about bias against their team may have been a smoke screen for ineptitude and cheating

Cold war rhetoric returned to the Olympics at a hastily called
press conference last Thursday during which Russian officials
cited injustices they felt had been committed against their team
in Salt Lake City and threatened to pull out of the Games. In
the Olympics' first week, Russian figure skaters Elena
Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze won the pairs event but four
days later were reduced to co-gold medalists with Canadians
Jamie Sale and David Pelletier because of judging
irregularities. Then, 30 minutes before the start of the 4x5-km
cross-country relay last Thursday, ski officials disqualified
Russia's team, a favorite to win the gold medal, after a prerace
test of Larissa Lazutina, a nine-time medalist, showed an excess
of hemoglobin in her blood, which may indicate that she had done
blood doping. The Russians complained that they weren't
permitted to replace Lazutina (rules forbid changing a relay
lineup less than two hours before a race) and maintained that
her hemoglobin level was elevated because she was having her
period. (Three days later Lazutina and teammate Olga Danilova
tested positive for darbepoetin, a blood-doping drug, and were
expelled from the Games.) The Russians even claimed there was
poor officiating in a hockey game against the Czech
Republic--that they won. Vitali Smirnov, an IOC vice president,
called the officiating in that game "truly disgusting."

The rambling tirade was more than a laundry list of grievances.
It may have been an attempt to curry favorable treatment the
next time there's a decision involving the Russians: when Moscow
bids for the 2012 Summer Games, or the next time a Russian
candidate runs for a high international sports position, or if
the IOC or Court of Arbitration for Sport gets involved in a
drug protest involving Russian athletes, or when a sponsor
ponders taking his money elsewhere because Russian athletes
aren't winning many medals, or....

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia's decreasing
success and influence in sporting circles has mirrored the
country's diminishing world stature. "Under the Soviet Union, we
had at least a first vice president in every major international
federation," says Alexander Ratner, a Russian Olympic Committee
member and vice president of the International Baseball
Federation. "When the Soviet Union collapsed, we lost not only
these positions but also many on the lower level. Now not a
single international federation president or secretary general
is from Russia."

The country is not only losing ground in the board rooms but
also in the arenas. Because many of the ex-U.S.S.R.'s best
facilities are located in other states of the former Soviet
Union, Russia still has no covered speed skating oval, no
bobsled and luge track and no Alpine ski center.

Russia won the medal count at the 1994 Games but finished third
four years later and sixth this year. In Utah the Russians
showed that they're in a desperate fight to reverse their
fortunes in the Gold War.

--Brian Cazeneuve

COLOR PHOTO: JENS MEYER/AP BAD DOPE Lazutina (2) was DQ'd after she failed one blood test and had a silver medal stripped from her after failing another.