Rio 2016: Russia counts the medal cost of doping indiscretions

A Russian supporter holds aloft a flag to support the team members competing in Rio.

Story highlights

  • Russia sees medal count drop from 82 to 56
  • Banned athletes halted from competing
  • Kremlin and Putin remain defiant amid it all
  • War of words in the pool for Yulia Efimova

(CNN)For every Russian gold medalist in Rio, Vladimir Putin penned a personalized note published on the Kremlin's website.

Boxing gold medalist Evgeny Tishchenko was greeted out of the ring with this sentiment: "You have proven to be a true champion by nature and to possess a high level of skill. These qualities, alongside confidence in your abilities to your Olympic success."
    During the course of two-and-a-half weeks the Russian premier penned more than a dozen such valedictories but a question mark remains how many more that might have been were it not for bans on many of Tishchenko's countrymen and women from competing in Rio.
    A total of 67 track and field athletes were prohibited from competing under the blanket ban by athletics governing body the IAAF for alleged systematic doping, the one exception being Darya Klishina, who was eventually given the all clear to compete in the long jump.
    At the previous Olympiad in London 2012, athletics accounted for eight of the entire Russian contingent's gold-medal haul of 24, with a further five silvers (26 in total) and five bronze (32) medals.
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    Potential medal winners who were barred in Rio could have been Sergey Shubenkov, the current world champion for the 110m hurdles and Yelena Isinbayeva, who insisted she was returning to her best form in the pole vault competition.
    In addition, the two meters Maria Kuchina jumped near Moscow last month would have been sufficient for high jump gold in Rio.
    Isinbayeva argued she had done nothing wrong. "Track and field is about individuals," she told CNN in June. "We are not a team sport. Every athlete is responsible for themselves, for their behavior, for their deeds.
    "So why should I be responsible for the mistakes of others? How can you consider everyone is dirty? From my side, this is a big mistake."
    Shubenkov, meanwhile, believes he was denied a legitimate chance to add an Olympic gold to his world title.
    "People who have been taking drugs anywhere should be punished and I have no tolerance for them but today I am punished and I am a clean athlete," he told the BBC. "No one cares that my career is going to be ruined.
    "Before it was like if there are any cheaters coming to Rio then they are doing going to deprive clean athletes of a chance to win. But now the clean athletes are deprived even the chance to go and compete and this is OK? To my mind, this is unhealthy."

    Whistleblower excluded

    The IAAF, had pushed for the additional inclusion of Russian 800m runner Yuliya Stepanova, the key whistleblower with husband Vitaly on the initial revelations of Russian doping, only for that to be blocked by the International Olympic Committee.
    Stepanova was damning of those Russians allowed to participate. She said: "I am certain there are a number of athletes taking part in the Olympic Games who have in preparation used PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs)," before also making the point that, "doping is not only a problem in Russia."
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    Stepanova argued that her countrymen and women should not be competing in any sport at all in Rio.
    "With the way the IOC decided to deal with systematically supported doping by the states, they showed that if the country supports doping the IOC will not show this zero tolerance," she said, the Guardian reported.
    "They say they are zero tolerance but they are really not. With their actions, it just raises more and more suspicions with the results, especially world records."

    'Not sporting'

    In all, 271 Russian sportsmen and women took part in Rio, down from the 389 that originally qualified.
    Many of them competed virtually unnoticed while others, like the swimmer Yulia Efimova, were booed almost every time they competed.
    It led Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko to describe such behavior as "not sporting" and he said that it needed to be controlled.
    Efimova served a drugs ban between October 2013 and February 2015, and had another provisional suspension for a positive sample for meldonium overturned to allow her to compete in Brazil.
    After winning silver in the 100m breaststroke behind American Lilly King, a war of words broke out when King said after beating the Russian: "I'm just happy to know I'm competing clean and doing what is right."
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    According to Russia's news agency Tass, Efimova responded: "All athletes should be above politics but they just watch TV and believe everything they read. I always thought the Cold War was long in the past. Why start it again by using sport?"
    With such a negative build-up, Efimova intimated she could have fared better still and had potentially come away with gold.

    'A scandalous reputation'

    There were others denied a chance to compete at all following the release of the McLaren report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
    The entire weightlifting team was banned while the international rowing federation took the next strongest stance by blocking the participation of 22 of the 28-strong team set for the regatta in Rio.
    Headed by Canadian law professor Richard McLaren, the independent report published in July concluded Russia's "Ministry of Sport directed, controlled and oversaw the manipulation of athlete's analytical results or sample swapping, with the active participation and assistance of the FSB (Russia's federal security service), CSP (Center of Sports Preparation of the National Teams of Russia), and both Moscow and Sochi Laboratories."
    Russian president Vladimir Putin reacted to the report by saying that "accusations against Russian athletes are based on the testimony of one person, a man with a scandalous reputation."
    CAS later ruled that the IOC initial stance that Russian sportsmen and women having previously been found guilty of doping offenses should be banned was not defensible by law.
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    The ruling came too late for many Russian athletes but meant a reprieve for, among others, cyclist Olga Zabelinskaya, who went on to win silver in the women's road race.
    Estimating how Russia might have fared without any bans is impossible to say.
    At London 2012, it won 82 medals, including 24 gold, and back in April when it looked like the entire team could be eligible to compete, a report by US-based metadata company Gracenote predicted 66 medals in all: 22 gold, 22 silver and 22 bronze. Sunday's final total was predictably shy of that at 19, 18 and 19 -- 56 in all.
    Amid it all, the Kremlin has remained defiant. Putin called the athletics ruling "blatant discrimination" and said it was "an attempt to bring the rules of world politics into the world of sport."
    What it did do was dent Russia's Olympic ambitions, their medal count poorer for it.