As Russia prepares its appeal against a series of World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) sanctions excluding the country from major international competition for four years, one of its favourite sporting sons, former National Basketball Association (NBA) player Andrei Kirilenko, has warned the proposed collective ban will punish innocent competitors.
"It’s really unfair for a lot of athletes who have never been involved in doping," Kirilenko, who has been President of the Russian Basketball Federation (RBF) for the last five years, told insidethegames.
Now 39, Kirilenko has joint United States and Russian citizenship after a 13-year NBA career with Utah Jazz, Minnesota Timberwolves, Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers during which he also played for Russia, winning bronze at the London 2012 Olympics four years after being his country’s flagbearer at the Beijing 2008 Opening Ceremony.
The man nicknamed AK-47 - because of his initials, jersey number and the fact that his birthplace, Izhevsk, is where the AK-47 automatic rifle was first manufactured - is effectively shooting from the hip as he offers his personal opinion on what he sees as a grave injustice to a rising generation of Russian sportsmen and women.
If the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejects the Russian appeal, set to be heard from November 2 to 5, it will mean the imposition of a range of punishments meted out by WADA last December after it found data belatedly obtained from the Moscow Laboratory following its original investigation into allegations of state-sponsored doping had been manipulated.
Russia's flag will be banned from the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games scheduled for next year and the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, forcing the country's athletes to compete as neutrals.
Russia is also set to be stripped of World Championships it has been awarded and the country has been barred from bidding for the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
There will be a route to competition at major events for Russian athletes who can prove they have had no involvement in the doping scandal that emerged in the wake of the Sochi 2014 Winter Games or the cover-up.
But it will be up to individual International Federations, in conjunction with WADA, to decide which Russian athletes can compete.
Russian President Vladimir Putin described the sanctions as "unfair" and earlier this month characterised his country’s athletes as victims of "unsportsmanlike means".
Kirilenko acknowledges Russia has "a problem" with doping, but believes that the idea of a "collective" punishment is fundamentally flawed.
"I see a little bit like tunnel vision right now," he said. "It’s ‘this is collective, let’s punish the country, let’s take their flag away…this and that’. And nobody is thinking about the athletes that have never been involved in cheating."
The 6ft 9in former defender - who has remained in Los Angeles during the pandemic but is generally based in Moscow - has taken his initiative amid unpropitious circumstances as far as the success of the Russian appeal is concerned.
In August, WADA voiced its concerns over the sacking of Yuri Ganus as director general of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency following alleged financial violations.
Ganus remains the only official to have acknowledged the Moscow Laboratory data had been tampered with and has repeatedly blamed unnamed Russian officials. He also conceded in October 2019 last year that "thousands" of changes had been made to the data before it was retrieved by the global watchdog.
Appointed in August 2017, Ganus also criticised the Russian Athletics Federation, calling for change at the very top amid its ongoing period in exile following the doping scandal.
The mood music also jarred last week when it was revealed that six Russian intelligence officers had been charged in the United States for an alleged global computer hacking operation that included targeting the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang.
Details of the attack on Pyeongchang 2018 were revealed by US Assistant Attorney General John Demers, chief of the Justice Department's National Security Division, with Russian officers allegedly unleashing a corrupted software system known as "Olympic Destroyer" to disrupt the Opening Ceremony of the Games.
This action was supposed to be in retaliation for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decision to ban the country from competing under its own flag in South Korea because of allegations of state-sponsored doping.
Last Wednesday (October 21) the Russian Embassy to the United Kingdom denied the allegations and claimed they were made to disrupt relations with the Olympic host countries of South Korea and Japan.
There is no denying the passion with which Kirilenko presses his case.
"I see the perception on the TV and in the media and I feel like it’s only one point of view," he said.
"I’m looking at a lot of young Russian athletes, because I am in a community of Russian athletes from my sport, and I feel like its really unfair for a lot of athletes who have never been involved in doping, never been involved in any situation like that.
"Right now they are affected. They are losing the opportunity to participate at the Olympic Games and different events like the European Cups or World Cups in respective sports.
"For me it’s unfair because my view is if the person is doing doping and cheating, 100 per cent they have to be punished according to the rules of WADA or the IOC. But when the people are sanctioned and they have never been involved in anything like that – this is wrong.
"I’m trying to put myself in their position, imagine I am 17 or 18 years old, and I’m playing basketball, and I’m a huge enthusiast and want to be in the game, I want to be at the Olympics, and right now, because of somebody else, someone I don’t even know sometimes, I am put in a position that I am losing my chance to go to the Olympics or play at the highest level.
"At this point I would be in a position where you are not going to see me, AK-47, after 15 years of beautiful career at the Olympics and at world level - you would probably not see me right now!
"This makes me sad. I feel like I have a high profile and I played in the US for a lot of years, I played in the NBA, I played for the Russian national team and Russian clubs. I’ve seen both sides and I love both sides.
"Sometimes the media - I understand it is their job - show only one side of the story and I am trying to emphasise or bring it to attention that there are always two sides. And in this particular situation there have victims who shouldn’t have been affected.
"And that’s because lately, for the last two or three years, I see that the whole situation is trying to be as a collective judgement. But in my opinion it is clear - it is not a collective.
"A lot of athletes have never been involved and they shouldn’t be affected by the collective. What are you talking about, when a person has never been involved in doping, in taking prohibited substances? And yet they are supposed to be in this pool of guilty people?
"So I want to try and bring this to attention and to say – you can’t judge like that."
Responding to the suggestion the collective judgement route has been taken in response to what is alleged to have been a collective attempt to dope Russian athletes, Kirilenko said: "I understand that. This particular scandal has shown that we have a problem and we need to work on it.
"But if you take a look at every scandal that happened before that - Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France, or Marion Jones in athletics – would all of the United States be judged by this? Or would Canada by judged by Ben Johnson?
"Doping is a global problem. If there is a proof of a doping situation everybody who is involved has to be punished, for sure. But it can’t be that those athletes that have never been involved are punished.
"So I don’t like what I see in the media. I see a little bit like tunnel vision right now. It’s ‘this is collective, let’s punish the country, let’s take their flag away … this and that’.
"They are punishing the ones who have stayed away from all of this all of their careers and all their lives. And that’s what I don’t like. In my opinion it is inappropriate and unfair."
Kirilenko refutes the idea that there has been a "collective" system of doping in Russian sport by reflecting upon his own experience.
"As an athlete participating in basketball I never met a situation where somebody from the Ministry of Sport or from the Government came to the team," he said. "As a player usually you see what is going on with the team, so if somebody would offer you doping or something strange you would see that.
"I have never been involved in a situation where we had a team and somebody strange came up to the team and said like, ‘Ah, OK, now you have to do this or you have to do that.’
"This has never happened. And that’s why I am quite positive that there is not a system in Russian sport for doping. Because if there is a system of the whole sport, at any level, people are going to come to the team and offer you something. You know what I’m saying?
"In my whole career, I have never been involved with this, I never met this situation, where I can say - ‘Oh yes, you know what? It was a strange situation and 15 years ago I remember those guys who came to the team and tried to bring something and said like, ‘oh, this is the order.’
"That’s why I’m very sceptical about the idea that it is a Russian system. It even sounds weird for me if the President said ‘OK, look, right now we need to win at all costs.’
"And knowing that our President loves sport, I would be very surprised if he would give such an order to the Ministry of Sport or whatever, to say like ‘OK, we need to win at all costs.’ This is weird. I couldn’t imagine this kind of situation.
"Maybe somebody in the high echelon of Government knows about doping - maybe not. We don’t know. When it comes to the President, he is saying, 'OK, give me what’s going on?' He gets information. And there is the possibility he’s been lied to, because somebody tried to hide this something that was going on. We don’t know the real story."
Asked to address the statistics that show that more than four times as many Russian athletes have had Olympic medals stripped from them because of retrospective doping positives than from any other nation, Kirilenko responded: "I agree this is a very delicate and bad situation from point of example, with young athletes coming in. From the outside it seems to me there is a problem but it’s a problem of a small group of people who decided: ‘OK, right now we need to do this.’
"I don’t know these people. But for me it doesn’t look like Russia has a doping system. Because if it is a system it affects every sport and for the last five years as President of the RBF, not even once have I seen or heard or been addressed by somebody saying: ‘OK guys, you know what? We have a system. You have to do this, or you have to do that.’ That’s why I can be sure that there is no system involved.
"But again I can believe there are some people who have taken some things too deep and they decided to cheat. That I can understand, and that is not in only one country.
"Again, I am pretty sure that Canada as a country and the United States as a country are not involved in doping. It is just groups of people who are working with some athletes. I truly believe it’s the same way in Russia.
"There was a group of people who tried to take this on a different level and win with the cheating way. I am strongly believing that it is not connected to the Russian Government order to dope. This is crazy for me. I am involved in sport and I have never seen anything of that kind."
Looking ahead to the impending CAS appeal, Kirilenko added: "I played in the NBA and had a pretty good profile as a professional athlete and I want to try and use this only to emphasise to the people who make these decisions to try to be objective as much as possible.
"Because if we judge by the collective and punish a country, we punish a huge amount, the bigger amount of athletes who have never been involved with doping.
"It’s very weird when you don’t do anything wrong and you can’t participate in the Olympics. In basketball the Olympic Games is the crème-de-la-crème event in an athlete’s career. To win an Olympic medal, for myself at least, is the biggest possible honour, bigger than an NBA title, bigger than a world title or a World Cup medal.
"And right now if players lose the opportunity to be at the Olympics, this is a big fail for their whole generation of athletes. It will lose five years of sport, five years of dream, for the majority of the youngsters.
"But not only youngsters. Mariya Lasitsekene is a great example. She is not a youngster, she is at prime time in her career and she is losing the opportunity of trying to win the Olympic high jump gold medal. She already lost an opportunity in Rio and she could be losing another opportunity in Tokyo. This is unfair.
"We are talking about taking the Russian flag away. What is the deal here? That Russia cannot be represented by the flag, and they are still Russian athletes?
"Every athlete can be under extra attention by WADA but it’s not reason to take flag away, the anthem away. Imagine you are a clean athlete, representing your country, your mother, yourself, your friends.
"Because of this perception you feel like you are already guilty even though you are not. I don’t have my flag, I don’t have my anthem, I can’t show anybody that I am proud to be Russian. This is unfair. This is not right."
Kirilenko believes WADA increasing its target testing on Russian athletes before, during and after competition is one way forward from the current impasse.
"I am not a specialist," he said. "I’m brainstorming right now - I don’t know if it’s my job or not. As I see it there is a possibility of increasing or improving the WADA work in this field, which is particularly close for the Olympics.
"I understand that there is an issue of trust here. So let’s try to fix it. Let them check Russian athletes more often - I think this is the right route to pursue. But we should not be judging clean young athletes and preventing them from their dreams. Be careful when you judge."