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Track Team's Ban Casts Pall Over Russian Olympic-themed Festival

FILE - Russian Olympic Federation President Alexander Zhukov, pictured in February 2016, said at Saturday's All-Russian Olympic Day in Moscow that "we will continue to work to let our clean athletes participate in the Olympic Games."

Authorities held a small festival Saturday in Moscow to support Russia's Olympic team, a day after the nation's track and field athletes were effectively banned from the Rio Olympics for failing to adequately clean up systemic doping.

The All-Russian Olympic Day included sporting events, demonstrations and games for the public, as well as speeches by past Olympic medalists.

Russian Olympic Federation President Alexander Zhukov attended the festival and spoke to the media about the importance of sports in Russia.

When asked about Russia's athletics team being banned from the Rio Olympics, he at first refused to comment. “Everything that you needed to know was announced by the Olympic Committee [Friday]. I made an announcement. You probably read it,” Zhukov said, before adding, “We will continue to work to let our clean athletes participate in the Olympic Games."

IOC action

There was some hope that the International Olympic Committee might overturn the ban by the sport’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations. But within minutes of Zhukov’s comments, the IOC said it fully backed the IAAF’s decision and would uphold the ban.

Germany’s ARD television first revealed allegations of state-run systemic doping in Russian athletics. An independent World Anti-Doping Agency report backed up the claims by whistle-blowers.

Russian officials acknowledge that doping is a problem in Russia that they are trying to clean up, but they deny it is state-run and say Russia is being singled out unfairly and for political reasons.

Saturday's Olympics-themed event, to some degree, seemed to help lift sagging spirits over the scandal’s consequences for Russian athletics.

The festival allowed children and families to test their skills at judo, fencing and arm-wrestling, among other events. A 5-kilometer (3-mile) race attracted a couple hundred runners.

After completing the race, runner Valeriya, a financial broker, acknowledged to VOA that the Olympic spirit in Russia had been affected by the ban.

"Of course,” she said, “Russia has always been one of the strongest [sporting] countries. We're always in the top five. But now when we have a whole group of sportsmen disqualified, I'm afraid it will impact on the results. So, it will not be like we expected it to be."

Champs offer support

Russian Olympic champions went on stage to support Russia's Olympic team as those in sports federations other than the banned team prepare for the Rio Games. Many did their best to try to lift Olympic spirits.

After doing a backward flip in front of an audience of hundreds, retired gymnastics champion Svetlana Khorkina told VOA that Russia's Olympic spirits had not been affected by the ban at all. While her words were not very convincing, her enthusiasm was palpable when she spoke on stage.

“Guys, on this All-Russian Olympic Day, be happy, be healthy and come to the central sports club of the army. It's a club of champions!” Khorkina said.

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