Moscow (AFP) - In Russia, where criticism of the authorities can lead to dire consequences, the head of the country's anti-doping agency Yury Ganus has openly accused officials of tampering with data handed to the global watchdog.
"It's dangerous but it's my mission," the head of RUSADA told AFP, asked if he felt afraid after assigning blame to the sports ministry and Russian law enforcement.
The executive of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is to meet in Lausanne, Switzerland on Monday to decide on a proposed four-year international ban of Russian athletes over the handling of doping allegations.
A WADA panel has accused Moscow of falsifying data handed over to investigators, including evidence under the control of the country's powerful Investigative Committee.
Russia has reacted to the proposal with allegations of a Western conspiracy, but Ganus -- who took the helm of RUSADA in 2017 -- has emerged as a surprising critic of the authorities.
In speeches and articles, he has called for President Vladimir Putin to intervene and attacked the sports minister, Pavel Kolobkov.
This despite the fact that two ex-chiefs of RUSADA, Vyacheslav Sinev and Nikita Kamayev, died suddenly within two weeks of each other in 2016 and the former head of Russia's anti-doping laboratory, Grigory Rodchenkov, lives in hiding in the United States.
"Russia needs to put its own house in order," Ganus told AFP in late October, predicting that the ban -- which would see Russia out of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing -- would be upheld.
Sports minister Kolobkov doesn't hide his irritation at Ganus, a compelling communicator who is comfortable dealing with the media.
"The manipulation the head of RUSADA is talking about does not exist," Kolobkov said last month.
In his Moscow office, Ganus showed off a poster representing RUSADA as an icebreaker ship clearing a path for a crowd of clean athletes.
The tall, grey-haired 55-year-old, who can easily switch from a charming smile to an intimidating glare, did not come from a sports background.
- Really 'Mr Clean'? -
"In my youth I did some wrestling and played handball," he said, displaying his big hands.
After studying law, he planned to work in law enforcement but ended up in business, including shipping and heavy industry. He took the helm of RUSADA without any special knowledge of sports or science.
He was chosen as a candidate who could inspire confidence in a renewed RUSADA and was untarnished by its central role in the doping scandal.
He said he applied for the job after seeing an ad on a recruitment site. A committee of experts chose him out of hundreds of candidates.
Ganus said he was moved by the plight of clean athletes, particularly those with dreams of competing in the Paralympics that were being thwarted by dishonesty.
Not everyone in anti-doping circles accepts this "Mr Clean" image at face value, with some suggesting that Ganus is part of a Machiavellian plot by devious Moscow.
They say that Ganus, by stressing RUSADA's innocence and lack of involvement in the latest tampering, makes the Russian agency unlikely to be punished as non-compliant by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
This could pave the way for Russian athletes to participate in the Olympic Games.
"The best defence, if the data has been manipulated, is to give the appearance that he is independent... But he is not independent," Travis Tygart, the head of the US Anti-Doping Agency, told AFP.
"I think it's a game and it's a well-orchestrated game."
But another source involved in anti-doping gave the opposite view.
"I want to believe Yuri Ganus is sincere," the source said on condition of anonymity, praising the RUSADA chief for "enormous progress in these proceedings and towards greater independence".