By Jack Stubbs
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said allegations he had helped cover up a top footballer’s positive doping test were silly and that he and Russia were being smeared as payback for winning the right to host the 2018 World Cup.
Mutko, who is battling to end a doping scandal that has placed a question mark over Russian athletes’ right to compete at the 2016 Rio Olympics, was responding to allegations against him made by German public broadcaster ARD/WDR.
The German broadcaster, whose reports led to the suspension of Russia’s track-and-field athletes, said an alleged internal sports ministry e-mail exchange discussing a footballer’s failed test said the matter should be forwarded to ‘VL’.
That, it said, referred to Vitaly Leontiyevich Mutko.
“Initials could be interpreted in a different way,” Mutko was quoted as saying on Thursday by the TASS new agency. “How could I help to hide this? Destroy it myself? This is silly stuff, unconvincing.”
After being suspended by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) last year, Russia is trying to convince sports authorities it is serious about rooting out cheats in time for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August.
The IAAF will decide whether Russia has done enough to have the ban overturned at a meeting in Vienna on June 17.
Backing its sports minister, the Kremlin said the allegations made by ARD/WDR were “unfounded slander” and based on testimonials by fugitives such as former Russian anti-doping chief Grigory Rodchenkov.
Rodchenkov has spoken widely about his role orchestrating systematic cheating in Russian sport since leaving the country for the United States.
“The entire series of ARD films feature well-known figures who ran from here, seemingly to earn their 30 pieces of silver,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with journalists.
Mutko said then doping scandal was payback from those unhappy that Russia had won the rights to host the FIFA World Cup in 2018 following allegations it bribed officials from soccer’s world governing body.
“One of the reasons for the doping scandal with Russian sportspeople is the desire to dredge up compromising information with regard to the 2018 World Cup,” he was quoted as saying by the RIA news agency.
“First they tried through FIFA but didn’t succeed,” he said. “Now they are investigating the laundering of bribes. They are trying to get in from the other side.”
(Additional reporting by Alexander Winning and Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Richard Balmforth)