Putin says Russia hopes to turn page on doping at Olympics

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Putin says Russia hopes to turn page on doping at Olympics
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking during a meeting with his supporters in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. Putin is expected to easily win another six-year term in this year's presidential election.(AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

MOSCOW (AP) — While branding the World Anti-Doping Agency’s key witness a “nutjob,” Vladimir Putin said Tuesday he hopes Russia can soon leave its years of doping scandals behind.

There are 168 Russians due to compete at the Pyeongchang Olympics under a neutral flag as punishment for past doping offenses.

“I hope that this page will be turned, and moreover, in the very near future,” the Russian president told a gathering of his supporters in Moscow ahead of March’s presidential election.

However, Putin continued to portray Russia as a victim of political intrigue designed to tarnish the good name of its athletes. Real doping problems in Russia, he said, had been exaggerated for political reasons using suspect evidence.

He reserved scathing remarks for Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory who described running a doping program and cover-ups over several years on orders from Russian government officials.

Referring to him as “this nutjob Rodchenkov,” Putin said he was an unreliable witness who “should be put in prison.” Putin also repeated a claim he made last month that Rodchenkov, who is under witness protection in the United States and says he fears for his life, is “under the control of the U.S. special services.”

Putin also called on Russian athletes to obey International Olympic Committee rules at the Pyeongchang Games. The IOC has required Russians to compete in uniforms without national symbols and bars them from gestures like taking a national flag from spectators to celebrate.

“I call on all our athletes to follow all the rules that the International Olympic Committee suggests,” Putin said, adding that Russia would “financially support and morally support” athletes who weren’t allowed to compete.

The IOC has been criticized by some Russian sports officials in recent weeks after ruling some top medal hopes didn’t pass its vetting process. However, Putin said Russia would continue to work with international sports organizations.

One Russian athlete who didn’t receive an IOC invitation, biathlon world champion Anton Shipulin, was in the audience along with boxer Alexander Povetkin, who has twice had title fights called off after testing positive for banned substances.