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WADA looking at claims that Russian swimmers are doping

GENEVA -- The World Anti-Doping Agency will study allegations by British daily The Times of widespread doping in Russian swimming to decide if it needs to open a similar inquiry to one which shattered the reputation of Russian athletics.

The newspaper alleged in Wednesday's edition that doping and cover-ups took place over several years in Russian swimming.

Some of the claims were linked to sports doctor Sergei Portugalov, whom WADA wants banned for life after his role in a doping conspiracy in athletics was detailed in November. That WADA-commissioned inquiry led to Russia's track and field team being banned from international events nine months before the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

"There is no doubt that today's disturbing assertions of orchestrated doping in Russian swimming should be scrutinized," WADA president Craig Reedie said in a statement.

Last week, Reedie committed WADA to re-evaluate the athletics inquiry report four months later to decide if references to doping in other Russian sports justified the time and cost of setting up new investigations.

That process will include trying to corroborate The Times reports, said the anti-doping watchdog, which has written to swimming's world governing body, FINA.

"In particular, we are concerned by the allegations that Mr. Sergei Portugalov ... may be working in swimming," WADA said.

FINA said Wednesday it had no "concrete evidence" of systemic doping in Russia and called on The Times to share its evidence. It pledged to investigate any allegations "substantiated by evidence and which have not already been addressed."

One claim cited two Russian swimmers whose positive tests for EPO, a banned blood-boosting hormone, in 2009 were covered up. Russia's now-discredited anti-doping agency, RUSADA, was "unable or unwilling" to pursue the case because the doctor named as supplying the drug had police connections, the report said.

The Times reported swim coaches saying they were aware of open distribution of medications at training centers and competitions in Russia.

The investigation quoted unidentified witnesses who suggested their fear of being named as whistleblowers.

"If I talk to you, I'll be under the next train at Moscow's main station, like the rest of them who knew too much," the newspaper reported quoting one swimming official.

The willingness of Russian swimmers or coaches to give evidence and risk being identified is likely to be key to any inquiry being set up or having any chance of succeeding.

The athletics inquiry, led by former WADA leader Dick Pound, was launched only after German broadcaster ARD gained the trust of Russian whistleblowers to speak publicly and to film secretly.

"There was very little that came from the (Pound) investigation from cooperation we got from, for example, athletes in Russia," Olivier Niggli, WADA's incoming director general, told the Associated Press last week. "So you have to ask yourself the question, is going into Russia interviewing more athletes from other sports going to bring us anywhere?

"Is there really sufficient evidence? We will do it if we think that it's going to be worth the effort."

In the athletics case, the WADA panel also investigated athletics' governing body, the IAAF, and helped discredit senior officials including its Russian treasurer, Valentin Balakhnichev, and its former president, Lamine Diack of Senegal, who is now under criminal investigation in France.

On Wednesday, FINA defended its management of the sport and pointed to its own response to the Pound inquiry.

FINA had "absolutely zero tolerance for the use of performance-enhancing substances in swimming," said the governing body based in Lausanne, Switzerland.

"However, it should be noted that while FINA is not aware of any concrete evidence of systemic doping in Russian swimming, we have taken a particularly robust approach to our anti-doping procedures in relation to Russia and Russian competitions, in light of WADA's recent investigation," it said.

Since the athletics inquiry report was published in November, and the allegedly corrupt Moscow laboratory had its WADA accreditation revoked, FINA has removed samples taken from swimmers at Kazan to be stored in Barcelona, Spain.

FINA has previously been criticized for its close ties to Russia, after giving President Vladimir Putin its highest award, months before Kazan hosted the 2015 world championships.

Travis Tygart, chief executive of the US Anti-Doping Agency, was among a number of officials worldwide who said Russia should be excluded from the Rio Olympic Games if the allegations of widespread doping prove true.

"They are just playing games and laughing behind our backs," Tygart said, according to the Times. "There has to be a consequence -- this was a state-sponsored system and anything less than some meaningful consequence is just not fair to clean athletes. Of course we want all countries at the Olympic Games, but that cannot come at the expense of clean athletes' rights."

USADA and representatives from USA Swimming met with FINA in January to express concerns over how some doping cases have been handled.

In Kazan, Russia's only gold medal was won by Yulia Efimova, who had recently completed a 16-month ban for doping with a steroid. Efimova this month tested positive for meldonium and faces a lifetime ban for a second offense.

Efimova said Monday she still hopes to compete at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August.

"I categorically reject the accusation of doping," she said. "At the current time, we are preparing for a hearing into my case. We intend to have the charge completely dismissed and to prove that I didn't break anti-doping rules, and I continue to train with the hope that I will compete at the Olympic Games in Rio."

A four-time gold medalist at the world championships, Efimova is a breaststroke specialist widely considered to be Russia's top medal hope in swimming at the Olympics.

Efimova won bronze in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 2012 London Olympics. She was stripped of five European championship medals after testing positive for the banned steroid DHEA in 2013. Efimova's ban on that occasion was reduced from two years to 16 months after she argued that she had taken the substance by accident while trying to buy a legal supplement.

"I missed one and a half years due to my own stupidity," Efimova said. "Since then I track especially carefully anything that enters my body, and I give a guarantee that any medicines that I have taken or am taking are allowed."

Efimova said she had taken meldonium for unspecified medical reasons, but stopped before Jan. 1, when the substance became banned in sports. Several other athletes who have failed tests have said they took meldonium only before the ban, announced in September, came into force.

"Although the half-life of meldonium in organism is only 4-6 hours, its complete elimination time from organism is significantly longer," the drug's Latvian manufacturer, Grindeks, said in an emailed statement. "Its terminal elimination from the body may last for several months and it depends on a variety of factors."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.