MOSCOW – For years, Russian leaders portrayed pursuit of the doping scandal that has paralyzed the country's Olympic aspirations as a mission driven by political interests in the West. On Thursday, fissures erupted between their own countrymen, ratcheting up the tension in advance of a decision that could determine the country's fate for next summer's Tokyo Games.
The internecine nature of the Russian doping saga spilled into full view when the country's sports minister, returning to Moscow from an anti-doping conference in Poland, said there had been no manipulation of crucial doping data handed to the World Anti-Doping Agency earlier this year.
That brought this response from the leader of the newly reconfigured Russian Anti-Doping Agency, which stands to be punished if, in fact, it's discovered that Russians did tamper with the data: "He lives in the world of illusion."
Those words from Yuri Ganus, still in Poland, came in response to the comments from sports minister Pavel Kolobkov in Russia. Kolobkov insisted there were no deletions or manipulations of the data, and that it was "a purely technical issue related to how the system itself works."
"Yuri ... needs to do his own job and not interpret documents which don't contain the information he is expressing publicly," Kolobkov said. "The so-called manipulations which Yuri ... is talking about aren't there, and that word isn't mentioned anywhere."
Regardless of the presence of the word "manipulations," Kolobkov's assertion stands in direct contrast to a report done for track's governing body in September.
That report, based on information provided by WADA, said the discrepancies "are not random. In many cases, they relate to positive findings that appear" in the database provided by a Russian whistleblower that is being cross-referenced with that from the Moscow lab.
The lab data had been guarded by Russian law enforcement at the Moscow lab. WADA negotiated to acquire it in order to corroborate positive tests resulting from Russia's doping program.
The head of WADA's compliance committee said the committee will deliver a recommendation to the WADA executive committee on Nov. 17. If that committee finds the data was tampered with, it could deliver a suspension to RUSADA, which would cripple the country's chances of taking athletes to the Olympics next year.
Russia has already fielded reduced teams at the last two Olympics. In 2016, the Russian team was allowed to compete, but minus a significant contingent; only one track and field athlete was entered, the result of that sport's governing body's separate ban of the track federation. In 2018, Russia was officially barred from the Winter Games, but 168 athletes competed under the title "Olympic Athlete from Russia" after IOC vetting of their drug-testing records.
Ganus has strongly criticized his own government, and this week, even asked for President Vladimir Putin to chime in and support the effort of his reformed agency.
On Thursday, faced with Kolobkov's comments, Ganus doubled down on the need for help, not denial, from his own government, which has been implicated for directing the doping program that started all the trouble.
"I feel that the people who stole the hope are the ones who were responsible for bringing the country out of this crisis," Ganus said. "They're responsible, first of all, to the current and future generations of athletes."
The day before, while still in Poland, Kolobkov gave a speech in front of the full WADA board.
"Now, there has become a vital need for a new generation of athletes," Kolobkov said, while also reminding the audience "that sport is out of politics, that sport unites."
But upon returning home, he stoked a political battle within his own country, appearing to toughen his country's stance on the source of the data flaws — all counter to what his own anti-doping chief has been saying for weeks.
"All these issues will be discussed and I'm sure all these issues will be explained," Kolobkov said.
Ganus said he's fairly certain that WADA isn't going to care why the data was manipulated, only that it was.
"The requirement was for the transfer of an authentic database, untouched," he said.
There's a chance the world will find out next week just what WADA received, and Ganus is well aware of the stakes.
"We need to keep getting the word out there," he said. "We work in a jungle with closed doors."
Ellingworth reported from Duesseldorf, Germany.