Corruption trial points to origins of Russian doping saga

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              Former president of the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) Lamine Diack, right, arrives at the Paris courthouse, Wednesday, June 10, 2020. A sweeping sports corruption trial opened Monday in Paris involving allegations of a massive doping cover-up that reached to the top of world track and field's governing body. Lamine Diack, 87, who served as president of the body for nearly 16 years, is among those accused of receiving money from Russian athletes to hide their suspected doping so they could compete at the Olympics in 2012 and other competitions. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
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PARIS (AP) — A lawyer who worked for track and field’s governing body when it first started to receive waves of new evidence pointing to a massive doping problem in Russia testified Wednesday in a Paris court that the sport’s then-president quickly decided to soft-pedal the problem.

Habib Cisse’s testimony shed light on the early days of what subsequently became the monumental saga of Russian doping. Russian athletes were barred from competing in the country’s colors at the last winter Olympic Games as a punishment for systematic doping and cover-ups, and the Russian track and field federation remains suspended.

Cisse, who worked as a legal adviser to former IAAF president Lamine Diack, testified at a corruption trial that is hearing allegations of payoffs to hush up suspected Russian doping cases. Cisse, who is among the accused, detailed how an improvement in anti-doping testing technology from 2009 revealed that blood doping had become a serious problem among Russian endurance athletes.

“There was a culture of doping,” Cisse testified. “No one could deny it.”

But rather than opt for a hard-line response that could have involved suspending Russia’s track federation, Diack instead ordered a softer, “non-confrontational” approach to avoid tarnishing the sport and the IAAF, Cisse told the court.

“President Lamine Diack decided not to take the route of suspension,” Cisse said.

Prosecutors allege that under Diack’s tenure as president from 1999 to 2015, the IAAF became riddled with corruption and that Russian athletes suspected of doping were squeezed for payoffs to delay or avoid potential sanctions. Diack denies the charges.

The 87-year-old Diack is being tried for corruption, money laundering and breach of trust. Prosecutors say he directly or indirectly solicited 3.45 million euros ($3.9 million) from athletes suspected by the IAAF of doping who paid to clear their names so they could continue competing.

Diack’s testimony on Wednesday was limited to a broad-brush recap of his life and career. He said his ambition at the IAAF had been to popularize track and field. He is expected to be questioned in depth Thursday on the accusations.

Cisse also faces corruption charges. In court, he denied that he intervened to slow down anti-doping sanctions for Russian athletes.

The lawyer was questioned about an exchange of text messages in 2014 with Papa Massata Diack, one of Diack’s sons. One message asked Cisse to refund 50,000 euros allegedly squeezed from a Russian marathon runner, Liliya Shobukhova. She later testified to investigators about illicit payments to hush up doping. Investigators allege that the text message shows that Cisse was a recipient of hush money.

Cisse said he never took a cent from Russian athletes.

“These stories of payments for protection, they were nonsensical, idiotic,” Cisse said.

Cisse was also questioned about a note that investigators seized at his home which prosecutors allege listed payments. He called the note “a tissue of lies.”

Cisse also said he never had discussions with Diack about hushing up doping cases for money.

“If at the the beginning, I had been told that we are going to protect athletes for money, I would have said, ‘No,’ categorically,” he said.

Papa Massata Diack also faces charges of corruption, money laundering and breach of trust. He lives in Senegal, which has refused France’s extradition requests for the former IAAF marketing consultant. He is not attending the trial.