Why Povetkin has dealt a knockout blow to Russian sport

Daniel Armstrong
30/05/2016 2:47pm

When heavyweight boxer Alexander Povetkin tested positive for the banned drug meldonium, putting paid to a scheduled clash with current WBC Heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder in Moscow on 21 May, he became more than the latest in a disconcertingly long line of Russian athletes already at the centre of the biggest doping scandal the country has ever seen. He became the man who dealt the blow to Russian sport from which it may never recover.

But Povetkin did nothing to telegraph his hammer hit. His fight with Wilder began innocuously enough. On paper, it was boxing gold. Povetkin, a six-foot-two colossus of Aryan features set atop a tower of turgid muscle, resembles the archetypal rugged Russian bad guy. If Sylvester Stallone needed a re-hashed Russian to star in his umpteenth Rocky Balboa instalment, chances are he would hire Povetkin. American Wilder pertained more toward Apollo Creed, a handsome and charismatic champion, but his backstory had elements of Rocky himself.  Wilder had qualified for the 2008 Olympics after just 21 fights, and won a bronze medal in Beijing. He is now paid to punch and was coming to Russia to defend his title in the bad guy’s back yard.


But the fight never happened. A little over a week before the two were set to headline at Moscow’s Megasport Arena, a Povetkin “A” sample collected on April 27 came up positive for meldonium and the bout was swiftly cancelled. It was initially reported that the World Boxing Council had postponed the fight, but Wilder’s veteran promoter Lou DiBella, one of the first to voice his displeasure, released a statement indicating that any rematch between the two is unlikely.


“Deontay Wilder was deprived of an opportunity to defend his title as he was prepared to – on an even playing field,” New Yorker DiBella said. “He and his team have suffered substantial damages as a result. Any talk of rescheduling by [Povetkin handler] Mr. [Andrey] Ryabinsky at this point is unfounded and premature.”


With that, the haymaker to the remaining pride and credibility in Russian sport was delivered, sending it crashing to the canvas. In exception to the other 40 athletes confirmed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to have tested positive for meldonium this year alone - including tennis star Maria Sharapova -Povetkin faced sabotaging something more sacred than lucrative commercial deals: the honour of boxing, over which a failed drugs test casts a worrying vignette.


In response to the news, drug cheat epithets were scattered across the headlines of Western journals and boxing blogs in disgust at the grave betrayal of the sport. For the fans, repugnance was enhanced by the fact that Povetkin (30-1, 22 KO), himself a former WBA World Heavyweight champion, was to provide Wilder (36-0, 35 KO) with the sternest test of his career so far. Not unreasonably, they felt aggrieved at having been robbed of a centrepiece showdown, a true top-of-the-bill clash. Furthermore, boxing fans in Russia had been deprived of a landmark sporting event on the motherland’s soil. The bill went ahead and the rest of the card’s fights took place, headlined by Russian cruiserweight world champion Denis Lebedev.  


But those who were present at the Megasport Arena in central Moscow that night were left disconsolate.


“[The show] was pretty awful, half of the stadium was empty, many people didn't come because they only were interested in Povetkin vs Wilder and I can understand them,” MichaelPotapov, a journalist covering the fight for Russian website Lenta.ru, told me.


“That fight would have been by far the biggest for Russia for many years, probably the biggest ever. The whole country was waiting for it and the disappointment is very deep. Many people believe Povetkin is innocent -  I don't think so.


Many consider the world heavyweight championship - regardless of its division into alphabet titles - as the most coveted prize in sport. That a Russian was fighting for that title was a huge chance to restore pride in a sporting landscape severely scorched by the recent doping scandal. That Povetkin plunged it deeper into abject disrepute at the top level is unforgivable.


“It was a huge blow. Russian sport is now under a massive attack, [the] doping scandal is as big as I’ve ever seen. A few days ago 14 athletes were caught doping at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It now looks possible that the whole Russian team won't go to the Rio games,” Potapov added.


The disappointment rightly sent ructions around Russia, a country that already has a storied relationship with meldonium. The drug was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on Jan 1, 2016 with athletes reportedly even being sent e-mails in the later months of 2015 informing them of the change. Nevertheless, alongside Sharapova and four Russian track and field athletes have tested positive for meldonium in 2016. In April, the entire 30-man roster of the under-18 Russian national hockey team were replaced by under-17 players for the World Championships in the U.S. after most of them tested positive for the drug, the Venn diagram of youth and innocence suffering one fell swoop of shame.


Even Povetkin himself is not the first Russian boxer to have been reprimanded for a failed doping test. Igor Mikhalkin was last month stripped of his European light heavyweight title and banned from the sport for two years for providing a positive meldonium test on March 12 before a scheduled title fight in France.


Performance-enhancing drug use in athletics is more commonplace. It makes it neither less important nor less shocking, but scandals involving BALCO, Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin and Dwain Chambers have in recent years served to eviscerate the integrity of their disciplines. In boxing, however, implicit cheating through the use of performance-enhancing substances is frowned upon ever so slightly more disapprovingly. The very essence of the sport harbours an honesty that every fighter carries into the ring. Pride, discipline, heart, desire are all traits refined by champions and warriors in the gym, who climb through those ropes to lay them bare before their adoring audience. Theirs is the arena of the unexpected, certainly, and least expected is for a competitor to bypass these preparations in favour of dirty tactics. In a sport where there is an ever-lingering danger to a participant’s health, an ill-gained advantage is made all the more sinister.


In Russia it seemed only a matter of time until the drug that had infected sport would spread to boxing. In November 2015, before anybody had heard of meldonium, 68 percent of Russian respondents to an online poll answered: “No, it has long been burning in Hell”to the question “Do you believe that Russian sport is clean?”.Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko responded by calling the allegations a ‘conspiracy against Russia’.


Since then Mutko has maneuvered his stance to damage limitation. A familiar argument from him and the Russian side was the ambiguity regarding the length of time meldonium - which is available over the counter in Russia - takes to exit an athlete’s system, and whether it would be ethically right to punish an athlete who tested positive for the drug after Jan. 1 if they had used the drug before that date. On April 13, WADA announced that a reading of less than one microgram of meldonium in an athlete’s drug tests would be an acceptable reading if the test was taken before March 1, 2016. This eased the pressure on some athletes caught on the wrong side of the WADA timeline.


But ESPN reported recently that it had received documentation from Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) president Dr. Margaret Goodman stating that Povetkin tested negative for any banned substance on April 7, April 8, and April 11, suggesting his ingestion of the drug came some time between April 11 and the positive test on April 27. His team admitted he took the drug last September and hasn’t taken it since Jan 1. But such calculations seem unlikely, even by Mutko’s argument that meldonium could take more than 100 days to leave the body.  It seems that not even the cunning of his own Sports Minister can save the 36-year-old from full blame and imminent punishment. It is now known that his “B” sample gave a positive reading for meldonium.


From tennis grand slam titles to Olympic gold medals and now the World Heavyweight Championship, sports biggest titles have been dragged indignantly into the murky territory of cheating and deception. It is a wonder how long the weary legs of Russian sport can stand up to the beating administered by its own actions.


With the circus surrounding doping in Russia intensifying to white-hot levels, those closely involved will do their best to quell the storm brewing beneath the big top. But with the World Cup taking place in the country just two years from now, it seems that Russia has managed to irreversibly muddy the pretext of the biggest sporting event in its history in its hasty quest for sporting superiority. It seems the country’s boxing landscape is suffering the same fate.