Russian Paralympic athletes steadfast as Rio ban ruling looms

Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber

Ruza (Russia) (AFP) - Russian Paralympic hopeful Alexander Makarov, a 19-year-old backstroke specialist, churns through 50 laps during his morning training session outside Moscow, preparing for Games he might have to watch from home.

The International Paralympic Committee's decision this month to suspend Russia over evidence of state-sponsored doping has threatened to further tarnish the country's drug-tainted reputation and see all its Paralympians sidelined from Rio.

But the turmoil in Russian Paralympic sport has not filtered into a training facility in the town of Ruza, some 100 kilometres west of Moscow, where a steadfast Makarov -- who suffers from arthrogryposis, a congenital condition that limits the limbs' movements -- says his training and concentration remain unchanged.

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"I keep training no matter what and prepare for my best result," Makarov, who hails from Siberia and won a silver and a bronze at last year's IPC Swimming World Championships, told AFP after his training on Thursday.

"I try not to think about it. I just do my job."

With less than three weeks to go before the Rio Paralympic Games (September 7-18), Russian Paralympic athletes are eagerly awaiting an August 22 ruling by the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) on the appeal their national committee filed this week contesting the ban.

Makarov's coach, Olesya Alexandrova, insists uncertainty has not derailed his preparations for what would be his first Paralympics.

"Waiting is always difficult and it doesn't matter what you're waiting for, be it at a bus stop or for a decision," she told AFP.

"It is always worrisome. Life goes on and we work in spite of this."

The president of Russia's Paralympic Committee, Vladimir Lukin, this week praised CAS for having "been known to show balance and make decisions competently in many cases" and said he was confident Russia would win its appeal.

But the IPC's decision to ban Russia, linked to a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren on state-sponsored doping in the country, was unanimous and there were immediate statements of support from member bodies, including the British Paralympic Association.

"Their medals over morals attitude disgusts me," IPC president Philip Craven said this month, adding that Russia's "thirst for glory at all costs has severely damaged the integrity and image of all sport."

- 'Hopes of millions' -

Russia has been heavily lobbying for its case ahead of next week's ruling.

Leading Russian disability rights organisations on Tuesday sent a letter to Craven, urging him to let Russian Paralympians compete in Rio and not let "the hopes of millions of Russian people with disabilities be ruined."

Lukin insisted last week that Russia's Paralympic Committee had done everything to tackle doping and had fulfilled all its obligations.

"I think that no other national Paralympic Committee has as carefully and actively worked on its anti-doping programme as we have," Lukin told reporters.

Russia narrowly escaped a blanket ban from the Rio Olympics last month when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) left it up to international sports federations to determine which Russians were eligible to compete while granting itself a final say.

A series of court wins saw suspended Russian athletes reinstated just in time for the competition, leading their country to fifth place in the Rio medal table as of Thursday.

Back at home 52 Russian swimmers hoping to compete at the Rio Paralympics are in the final stages of their preparations, spread out in different training facilities in the country.

Breaststroker Mikhail Zimin, a visually-impaired Paralympian who is training in the southern region of Rostov, said he would let nothing throw him off course.

"I don't want to let anything distract me," Zimin, who won gold in the 100m breaststroke at the 2012 London Games, told AFP. "I just keep training regardless of everything."

At the pool in Ruza, Alexandrova is convinced that missing out on Rio will not spell the end of Makarov's blossoming career.

"I know that he will (continue) because swimming and sport are the meaning of his life," she said.

Makarov will be 23 during the next Paralympic Games, Tokyo 2020.

"There won't be only one Paralympics," Alexandrova said.

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