Russians say they may leave Games; Officials cite judging, ‘witch hunt,’ in threat that includes ’04

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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SALT LAKE CITY – One day before a Cold War hockey rematch, Russian officials revived a Cold War technique when they threatened to pull out of the Olympic Games.

But this time, Russians say that “unobjective decisions” by Olympic judges, not international politics, are forcing them to consider leaving Salt Lake City early. They also threatened to pull out of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens if their concerns aren’t addressed within 24 hours.

“I said that if Russia is not needed in the big sport, in the world sport, in the Olympic sport, hey, we’re ready to leave the Olympic Village,” said Leonid Tyagachev, president of the Russian Olympic Committee.

Later, Vitaly Smirnov, an IOC vice president from Russia, tempered Mr. Tyagachev’s remarks, saying there was no ultimatum “not 24 hours or 48 hours.”

Mr. Tyagachev’s comments were prompted by the disqualification hours earlier of Larissa Lazutina, a top Russian cross country skier, from the 20-kilometer relay. A pre-race test found elevated levels of hemoglobin in her blood. With no substitute on hand, the Russian team was forced to withdraw from the race.

Mr. Tyagachev acknowledged that Ms. Lazutina’s hemoglobin count was just above the legal limit but said she is not guilty of doping.

“We are clean,” he said. “We have nothing to hide.”

The Russians said Ms. Lazutina’s disqualification was the latest in a string of anti-Russia judgments, including last week’s disputed pairs figure skating controversy and the officiating in Russia’s 1-0 win over the Czech Republic in the men’s hockey quarterfinals. He also said an unusually high number of Russian athletes were being selected for doping tests.

“I think we are seeing a witch hunt,” he said.

International Olympic Committee officials are confident that the calls made in each case “were absolutely correct,” according to IOC secretary general Francois Carrard.

Mr. Carrard said that, in a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, IOC president Jacques Rogge wrote that he “understands that the stakes are high, and emotions and tensions run high” and that he sympathizes with the Russians.

Russia’s statements put its eagerly awaited hockey match with the United States at risk. The teams are scheduled to meet Friday in a rematch of the United States’ “Miracle on Ice” win over the Soviets 22 years ago to the day.

“If decisions are not made and issues we raised not resolved, the Russian team will not play hockey, will not run 30 kilometers, will look very negatively on other factors,” Mr. Tyagachev said.

Ms. Lazutina, who has won two silvers at these Games, is scheduled to race in the 30-kilometer cross country race Friday. Results from a urine test will determine if she is allowed to compete.

A high hemoglobin level is considered a health risk, not by itself a doping offense. Ms. Lazutina is pursuing her 10th career medal, which would tie the women’s Winter Olympics record.

“I think it’s clear that when the United States and Canada win as many medals as they have here, it’s because of the money that comes from the United States and Canada,” said Alexander Ratner, a Russian Olympic Committee board member. “It was in short track and other sports. I was convinced it would happen in hockey. The United States-Canada hockey game would be much more interesting to NBC.”

Mr. Tyagachev said that if Russia’s concerns should be addressed within 24 hours to avoid a walkout. And if the team left Salt Lake City early, it would likely not participate in the Athens Games, he said.

“Once you leave, it is not easy to come back in,” he said.

But Russian hockey officials said they were operating under the assumption they’d be playing Friday. “We will play,” said Slava Fetisov, coach and general manager of the Russian hockey team. “We are preparing for the game as if nothing has happened.”

The Russian concerns add to a long list of judging complaints at the Salt Lake City Olympics. Highest profile was the pairs figure skating dispute, in which Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier appeared to have the strongest performance but finished behind Russians Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze.

After allegations that a French judge was pressured to vote for the Russians no matter how they performed, both the Russians and Canadians were awarded gold.

The Russians had earlier sent a letter of complaint to the International Ski Federation, alleging that judges in the freestyle aerials competition were biased. South Korean officials have filed complaints over a disputed short-track speedskating disqualification, and the Lithuanians have lodged a complaint
alleging a judging error in ice dancing.

“It’s a chain of events that, one by one, they are separate – but when they’re put together, one can think it’s a plot,” Mr. Ratner said.

Staff writers Mike Heika and Juliet Macur contributed to this report.