Russia’s World Cup can’t avoid the tarnished legacy of Russia’s Winter Olympics. The doping scandals that have consumed Russian sports for the last three years took another turn Tuesday as the International Olympic Committee handed a lifetime ban to Vitaly Mutko, the sports minister during the 2014 Sochi Games.
After Sochi, the IOC ruled the host nation operated a doping program and tampered with Russian athletes’ urine samples. Still, Mutko has maintained a prominent role in Russian sports. He is now a deputy prime minister and is in charge of the country’s World Cup preparations as chairman of the local organizing committee for the June tournament.
The IOC commission didn’t directly accuse the Kremlin or Mutko of any wrongdoing for Sochi but found the sports ministry “has to bear the major part of the administrative responsibility” because it was responsible for overseeing anti-doping measures at the 2014 Olympics. It also found in the case of Mutko’s then deputy minister, Yuri Nagornykh, that “it is impossible to conclude that he was not aware of the system in place.”
FIFA said Tuesday the IOC ruling wouldn’t affect the World Cup, which begins in June.
“This decision has no impact on the preparations for the 2018 FIFA World Cup as we continue to work to deliver the best possible event,” soccer’s world governing body said in a statement which didn’t mention Mutko by name.
FIFA added it was investigating evidence involving soccer raised by earlier World Anti-Doping Agency reports.
“When it comes to potential disciplinary or ethical matters concerning specific individuals, it will be up to the respective FIFA bodies to evaluate them. Please understand that any information on specific disciplinary or ethical matters will be communicated accordingly upon the respective committee’s indications.”
Jim Walden, lawyer for whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, said he and his client had not been contacted by FIFA.
“You would think … they’d have better PR people to say, listen, if there’s evidence we should at least appear as though we’re interested in getting it,” Walden said during an interview at The Associated Press.
Asked which was more corrupt, the IOC or FIFA, Walden responded: “Which family is more deadly, the Gambinos or the Bonannos?”
Mutko has fiercely denied any wrongdoing by himself, Russian athletes or the Russian state _ sometimes leading to awkward moments for FIFA.
On Friday, Mutko repeatedly launched into lengthy defenses of Russia’s record during a joint news conference at the Kremlin with FIFA president Gianni Infantino ahead of the World Cup draw.
Mutko insisted “there is no proof” of any wrongdoing in what he called a campaign to tarnish Russia’s sports achievements and paint it as “an axis of evil.” He twice apologized to Infantino for lengthy diversions defending a banned Russian gold medalist in the sliding sport of skeleton.
FIFA removed Mutko from its governing council in March _ though that wasn’t attributed to doping. Instead, a FIFA review committee found his position in the Russian government amounted to a conflict of interest. His longtime associate and fellow World Cup organizer Alexei Sorokin now occupies the seat.
Mutko’s position, that Russia did nothing wrong, also has broad support in Russia. If Russia goes to the Winter Olympics in February under the IOC conditions of a neutral flag, its athletes are likely to have strong support back home.
Sports journalist Maria Komandnaya, the co-presenter for Friday’s World Cup draw alongside former England striker Gary Lineker, struck a patriotic note Tuesday.
She insisted Russia could top the medal table at February’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang with or without its anthem and flag.
“Our athletes will definitely win these Olympic Games,” she wrote on Twitter. “Whether under a neutral flag or any other.”
Walden’s firm represents Alejandro Burzaco, former CEO of the marketing company Torneos y Competencias. Burzaco testified as a government witness in the ongoing U.S. trial of three former South American soccer federation presidents on charges of racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy.
Asked whether Rodchenkov provided evidence that the Russian doping case included wire transfers that involved U.S. banks, Walden said “it’s been publicly reported that there is an internal _ there is a domestic investigation. I can’t really comment on those details.”