BRUSSELS, Belgium — With only one week to go before the Beijing Olympics, Russia suddenly has its own version of a BALCO doping scandal involving some of the track team's biggest stars.
After a 1 1/2-year investigation, the IAAF provisionally suspended seven female Russian athletes Thursday, accusing them of tampering with their urine samples. The list includes Yelena Soboleva, a world record-holder and world champion middle-distance runner who was favored to win both the 800 and 1,500 meters at the Olympics.
The seven athletes, many of them potential Olympic medalists, come from several disciplines, from middle-distance running to the hammer and discuss throw.
The athletes could still compete at the Beijing Games if they were to get an emergency ruling lifting the provisional suspension.
Track and field competition begins in China on Aug. 15 and the timing of the charges is unquestionably bad, though Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was caught doping at the 1988 Seoul Games themselves. The sport is trying to recover from a recent spate of recent doping scandals, and is hoping to use the Beijing Games to reclaim some of its luster.
Earlier this month, coach Trevor Graham received a lifetime ban from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for his role in helping his athletes obtain performance-enhancing drugs as part of the scandal that erupted with a raid on the BALCO headquarters in California in 2003. Related to the case, former Olympic champion Marion Jones has admitted to doping and is currently in prison.
Track and field took a big plunge in credibility and popularity because of that scandal and Thursday's events hurt its recovery. In addition to the Russian scandal, the Romanian Olympic Committee said middle-distance runners Elena Antoci and Cristina Vasiloiu tested positive for the blood booster EPO and could be dropped from that country's team pending a second test.
Suspicions about the Russians first surfaced in early 2007, when a string of truly exceptional results were matched by a long string of flawless negative testing results.
Attention increasingly focused on the Russian athletes, and experts started comparing their in-competition samples, which were clearly delivered by the athletes themselves, to those taken out of competition.
"After a long and careful study it was clear it was not the same people giving the sample," a source close to the investigation told The Associated Press. The samples taken out of competition dated from March to August 2007, the source said.
Based on those findings, the IAAF announced that Soboleva, two-time world 1,500 champion Tatyana Tomashova, middle-distance runners Yulia Fomenko, Svetlana Cherkasova and Olga Yegorova, hammer thrower Gulfiya Khanafeyeva and discus thrower Darya Pishchalnikova would be provisionally suspended.
Russian track officials confirmed the suspensions and said they were a bitter blow to the Russian team's chances at the games.
"According to their latest results, they were considered to be real contenders for Olympic medals, including gold," All Russia Athletics Federation president Valentin Balakhnichev said.
The timing of the scandal is especially bad since Russia is actively seeking to recapture the glories of the old Soviet sports machine. Russian officials criticized the IAAF for making the announcement so close to the Beijing Games.
"There are many questions. The first is: What in fact happened? There will be a special inquiry," Russian Olympic Committee anti-doping chief Nikolay Durmanov said.
"A less important question but a more pertinent one is: Why is the issue of last year's tests emerging just a week ahead of the games? Couldn't this question have been discussed with us in May, June or March?"
The source close to the investigation said, however, time was needed to be fully and legally certain of their case. "DNA tests do take time to be legally foolproof," the source said.
The IAAF said in a statement that the matter would be turned over to the All Russia Athletics Federation.
According to IAAF rules, athletes have up to 14 days to request a hearing with their national federation. If a hearing is requested, it must be held within two months.
Fomenko was second to Soboleva when she set the indoor world record of 3 minutes, 57.71 seconds on March 9 in Valencia, Spain, breaking her previous mark of 3:58.05.
At the time, other middle-distance runners were already suspicious of the Russian results, claiming many of the sterling times the runners were turning in could not have been set within days by the same athlete.
"The accusations are curious," Soboleva said Thursday in an interview on state-run television. "The time was carefully chosen _ we practically could do nothing _ neither file an appeal nor look into the case. We are simply put aside and our hands are tied."
Tomashova won world titles at the 2003 and '05 championships, and won silver at the 2004 Athens Olympics, while Yegorova won the 5,000 at the 2001 Edmonton worlds and took silver in the 1,500 at the 2005 Helsinki worlds and gold in 3,000 at the 2001 indoor worlds. Pishchalnikova won the silver medal in the discus at the 2007 worlds and gold at the 2006 European championships, and Khanafeyeva won silver in the hammer throw at the 2006 Europeans and set a world record in her event in 2006.
Associated Press writer Leonid Chizhov in Moscow contributed to this report.