MOSCOW (AP) Some of Russia's Olympic and world champion race-walkers have returned to action after serving doping bans in cases that could prove a sticking-point in talks over lifting Russia's ban from global track and field.
In recent years, there have been more than 30 doping cases among elite Russian race-walkers, including the biggest names on the world-beating national team.
Among at least three top walkers who returned to competition Saturday in Sochi at the Russian winter championships after serving doping bans were Sergei Kirdyapkin, the reigning Olympic champion over 50 kilometers, and Olga Kaniskina, the 2008 Olympic women's champion.
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Russia would be a serious medal contender if readmitted for the Olympics. Kaniskina won her 20k race in 1 hour 25 minutes 54 seconds, the fastest time in the world this year, despite not having competed since 2012.
Kirdyapkin told Russian newspaper Sport Express that he and his teammates were focused on racing at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, despite the ban imposed on Russia in November, when a World Anti-Doping Agency commission reported systematic, state-sponsored drug use.
''I think everything will be fine. We believe. Otherwise, we wouldn't have bothered to return,'' he told the newspaper after coming second in a 35k race Saturday.
However, it is not clear whether the walkers will be allowed to compete, even if Russia's suspension is lifted.
Track and field's world governing body, the IAAF, has demanded that the Russian athletics federation cut ties with the national walking training center, but there has been no clarification on whether that means a blanket ban on all athletes based there. It is unclear how they might comply with extra testing requirements.
Two stars of the team, Kirdyapkin and reigning Olympic women's 20k champion Elena Lashmanova, are also under investigation for allegedly continuing to race while they should have been suspended for doping offenses.
In a separate matter, the Court of Arbitration for Sport will rule in the coming days on whether some top Russian walkers should be retroactively disqualified from the 2012 Olympics, potentially stripping Kirdyapkin of his 50k gold medal, which would pass to Australian Jared Tallent.