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Will Russian Athletes Be Barred From Rio's Summer Olympics?


And here's something to think about. Will all of Russia's athletes be barred from competing in this summer's Olympics in Rio? That could happen. The World Anti-Doping Agency is investigating allegations that Russia ran a huge, state-sponsored doping system. NPR's Melissa Block has more.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: The main whistleblower in the case is the chemist who used to run Russia's anti-doping laboratory, Grigory Rodchenkov.

REBECCA RUIZ: Dr. Rodchenkov said that the operation worked like a Swiss watch.

BLOCK: He told his story to Rebecca Ruiz, investigative sports reporter for The New York Times. And what he described happening at the Winter Olympics in Sochi is stunning.

RUIZ: He would sneak down from his fourth floor office to a storage closet on the first floor of the Sochi lab at about 12:30 at night.

BLOCK: There, Rodchenkov said, he would be handed the Russian athletes' urine samples through a secret hole in the wall - urine tainted by a three-drug cocktail of steroids that he had developed. The Russian officials would dump the tainted urine out.

RUIZ: And exchange the clean urine of these athletes in Coca-Cola bottles and juice bottles and baby formula bottles.

BLOCK: Clean urine that had been collected months before. Dr. Rodchenkov also says members of Russia's Federal Security Service took part in the doping scheme. Fearing for his safety, he has since fled Russia and now lives in Los Angeles. As Rebecca Ruiz has reported, two of his close anti-doping colleagues died unexpectedly.

RUIZ: They died within weeks of each other. They were people at the center of Russia's anti-doping operation. And Dr. Rodchenkov has certainly said he's suspicious of the circumstances.

BLOCK: A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed the doping allegations as the slander of a turncoat. For its part, the International Olympic Committee calls the claims shocking if true, an unimaginable level of criminality at the state level. The IOC says it will take swift action based on the outcome of an investigation by WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, which could mean that all of Russia's athletes will be barred from competing at the summer games in Rio. That would be unprecedented.

DICK POUND: That has never happened before, no - that an entire country has been banned from participation as a result of doping.

BLOCK: That's Dick Pound. He's founding president of WADA. And he chaired an independent commission last fall that found what it called a deeply-rooted culture of cheating in Russian track and field. Those athletes have been suspended from international competition. A decision on whether they can compete in Rio is expected next month. Pound says the question now is - should all the other Russian athletes be barred from Rio, even if they didn't take performance-enhancing drugs?

POUND: There's collateral damage in a case like this that - given the system, everybody in that system was either aware of it or complicit.

BLOCK: Russia's sports minister has said while he's ashamed of the athletes and coaches who broke anti-doping rules, Russia has cleaned up its act - has nothing to hide. And he says it would be unfair to punish all of Russia's athletes for the behavior of others. Meanwhile, think about the athletes who finished behind the Russians in Sochi.

MATTHEW ANTOINE: I was about two to two and a half seconds back from the gold medal.

BLOCK: That's Matthew Antoine. In Sochi, he won bronze in skeleton. That's when you go down the track headfirst on a sled. The Russian who won gold is named as one of the Sochi dopers.

ANTOINE: Alexander Tretiakov.

BLOCK: So Antoine could get bumped up to silver.

ANTOINE: If I earned it, I want it. But it's a bigger story than myself. While my result is something that's important to me - the integrity of the sport. And obviously, the Olympic Movement is kind of hanging on what they find from all of this.

STEVEN HOLCOMB: They've got a huge decision on their hands. And they could make or break sport.

BLOCK: Steven Holcomb was the U.S. bronze medalist in bobsled at Sochi. While the Russian team, including an alleged doper, took gold.

HOLCOMB: Right now, no athlete that I am aware of believes in the system at the moment. I mean, if you can get away with something like that, then what are they doing when it's not the Olympics? I mean, holy smokes.

BLOCK: If he does get bumped up to silver, Holcomb says - well, great. But that podium moment has passed. And what about the bobsledders who came in right behind him and never made the podium at all?

HOLCOMB: Whoever finished fourth gets bumped up to third. You know, their medal ceremony will be opening a certified mail package with a medal inside.

BLOCK: So much for Olympic glory. Melissa Block, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.