Only two years after Russia's victorious performance at the Winter Olympics it hosted in Sochi, the country's proud sporting tradition is jeopardized by alleged abuse of performance-enhancing drugs among some of the country's top athletes.
"The worst-case scenario is unfortunately conceivable," acknowledges Moscow's powerful Sport Minister Vitaly Mutko.
On Friday, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) will decide in a historic meeting in Vienna whether to exclude Russia's track-and-field team from the Summer Olympics in Rio this August. It could be the first ban of its kind in the modern Olympic Games' 120-year history.
Russia's reputation is more than battered. The doping cases, as well as riots at the Euro 2016 football championship in France, are making international headlines - and two years before Russia is set to host the FIFA World Cup.
Minister Mutko is becoming unusually irritated. "What does the 2018 World Cup have to do with it?" he snaps at reporters after the weekend riots in Marseille.
For years, doping has been a taboo subject in Russia. But since the two-year ban against tennis star Maria Sharapova for using the performance-enhancing drug Meldonium, forbidden this year, a great fear has been spreading through the Russian sports community.
"Exclusion from the Olympics would officially brand Russia as a cheater," writes Russian sporting newspaper Sport-Express. Russia's brilliant victory at Sochi in 2014, perhaps influenced by doping, has been long forgotten. "A ban from Rio would be a disaster," announces Russian sports channel Match TV.
The Kremlin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov fights back by denouncing accusers in the doping scandal as slanders and traitors. Mutko speaks about "regrettable, isolated cases" and warns against putting the whole country under suspicion.
Moscow's most effective weapon appears to be harsh criticism against a sweeping ban. Clean athletes including pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva condemn such a punishment.
"For 20 years my doping tests have been negative, and now because of the violations of others must I be banned?" Isinbayeva complains. Doping in Western countries such as Germany and the United States must also be considered, she insists.
The scandal increasingly appears as part of a conflict between East and West. Many Russian officials consider the allegations as defamation. For them it's clear that the culprits are in the West and link their campaign with the anti-Russia sanctions imposed over the Ukraine crisis.
Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) considers this period to be the hardest for international sports since the Olympic boycotts in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984.
In an open letter to International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, the German Athletics Association recommends that all Russian athletes be banned, even if their doping tests are negative, because in some countries - implying Russia - there is not a trustworthy control system against doping.
Russia has high hopes for Friday's meeting in Vienna to allow medal hopefuls such as Isinbayeva to compete at the Olympics in August. Great achievements at the Games can distract from the doping scandal, to the benefit of the country's leadership, with parliamentary elections to be held the following month.
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