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Tour de France

Russian Zakarin focused on Tour amid Olympic concerns

Will top Russians like Ilnur Zakarin be permitted to race the Rio Games? That's up to the IOC, and Zakarin is staying focused on the Tour.

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BERN, Switzerland (VN) — Before Ilnur Zakarin could step onto the Katusha bus after Monday’s stage at the Tour de France, a journalist blocked his way, and asked him if he was worried about his participation in the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.

Zakarin simply shook his head, said he did not want to comment, and disappeared into the bus.

Scores of journalists hovered outside the bus Monday; some to ask about Alexander Kristoff’s near-miss to Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), and others to ask about an explosive report that could see all Russian athletes banned from the Rio Games.

Zakarin, 26, is the lone Russian racing in the Tour de France who is Brazil-bound to compete on the three-man Russian road squad in the Olympic road race in August. Sergey Chernetskiy and Pavel Kochetkov, both also of Katusha but not at the Tour, are set to race the road event, with Zakarin also racing in the time trial.

Whether or not they go to Brazil depends on what happens in the next days.

On Monday, WADA released the so-called McLaren report that delved into systematic corruption and cover-up involving the Russian Olympic movement. Initially focusing on the Sochi Winter Games, the report expanded its reach to consider both summer and winter sports.

The findings were startling. The report alleges that Russian government and sports officials systematically sabotaged anti-doping efforts, and worked to protect doped Russian athletes. The report also claims that 580 positive doping controls were covered up across 30 different sports, including more than 20 involving cycling.

Less than three weeks before the Olympics, WADA called for all Russian athletes to be banned from the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. The IOC is considering action, and is scheduled to meet as soon as Tuesday to consider options.

As the intrigue unfolded across the headlines Monday, Zakarin, 26, raced to 85th in Tour’s 16th stage, unaware of the growing media storm waiting for him at the finish line.

As soon as Zakarin disappeared inside the bus, the media’s attention turned to Katusha manager Viatcheslav Ekimov, himself a former Olympic medalist. Ekimov said he was not fully aware of what was happening to make an informed statement, but journalists pressed anyway.

“This is a political question,” Ekimov said. “I haven’t read anything. I only saw a headline. I don’t know anything yet.”

Since its inception in 2009, Katusha has been backed by Russian billionaire Igor Makarov, and has had close ties to the Russian cycling federation. The team long billed itself as part of a “Russian Global Cycling Project,” an effort that also included RusVelo and other development squads.

Last year, the team reorganized itself, is de-emphasizing its Russian roots, and is marketing itself as an international team. Ekimov reiterated the team’s new direction to journalists on Monday.

“We are not involved in this, so how can I comment?” Ekimov said. “We are an international team. I have nothing to say on these questions.”

Zakarin, who served a two-year doping ban from 2009-2011, will have to wait on the IOC’s decision to see whether he can pursue his Olympic dreams.