By Jack Stubbs and Christian Lowe
MOSCOW (Reuters) – The head of Russia’s Olympic Committee, Alexander Zhukov, is stepping down, in the biggest change at the top of Russian sport since a doping scandal led to the country’s track-and-field athletes being excluded from the Rio Games.
President Vladimir Putin said Zhukov had told him he wanted to leave the role so he could concentrate on his other job as first deputy speaker in the lower house of parliament.
“This is without doubt the right thing, we support it completely,” Putin told a meeting of sports officials attended by Zhukov on Tuesday, adding that he “has done a lot for sport and, I hope, will do more still”.
Zhukov was given the tough task of trying to persuade the International Olympic Committee not to ban Russia entirely from the Rio Games despite damning reports from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that uncovered widespread state-sponsored cheating. His low-key, behind-the-scenes style was in contrast to the forceful approach of Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who is well known for emotional outbursts.
Russia was eventually allowed to send athletes in most sports other than track and field, but was banned from the subsequent Paralympics.
Whoever replaces Zhukov will play a key role in trying to clean up Russia’s reputation and heal relations with the wider Olympic movement – an important priority for a country that sees sporting success as a symbol of its power and world standing.
Russian officials made no connection between Zhukov’s departure and the doping allegations.
“In most of the cases, these were made up and were unfounded, in order to totally discredit Russian sport,” Mikhail Mamiashvili, president of Russia’s Wrestling Federation, told Reuters.
Zhukov, a Putin ally and former deputy prime minister, has been president of the Russian Olympic Committee since 2010, and was chairman of the Organising Committee for the 2014 Winter Olympics in the southern resort of Sochi.
Russia lavished some $50 billion on the Games, a prestige project for Putin, and finished top of the medals table. But a WADA-commissioned report this year described how, in a clandestine night-time operation, positive samples from athletes who had cheated were smuggled out of a lab through a hole drilled in the wall, and then replaced with clean samples.
Russia acknowledged that there were shortcomings in its anti-doping operations, but Zhukov was among those who argued it was being unfairly singled out for punishment for political reasons while doping by other countries was ignored.
Zhukov quickly rose through the ranks at the International Olympic Committee, which this year appointed him to an influential role as head of the commission overseeing Beijing’s preparation to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.
(Additional reporting by Dmitry Rogovitskiy and Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)