Vitaly Mutko: Russia's controversial sports tsar

Moscow (AFP) –


Russian deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko has dodged controversies large and small over the years and emerged unscathed from a string of corruption and doping scandals in Russian sport.

But on Tuesday Russia's sports tsar suffered a major blow when he was banned for life from the Olympic movement over revelations of state-sponsored doping.

The blow will raise questions as to whether Mutko can continue in his role as head of the organising committee for the 2018 football World Cup, which Russia will host.

Damning reports of a vast doping scheme benefitting Russian athletes and allegations of graft over Russia's hosting of the 2018 World Cup and the 2014 Sochi Winter Games had so far failed to dent his power and influence.

When the then sports minister was barred from the 2016 Rio Olympics over doping charges, he not only survived, but was promoted to deputy prime minister.

The 58-year-old Mutko, known for contradictory statements and diatribes against critics of Russian sport, has insisted in the past that Russia will reform its scandal-ridden anti-doping system but has denied state complicity in doping cover-ups.

Recently he dismissed doping allegations as an attempt to create an image of an "axis of evil" against his country.

And at a time when relations between Russia and the West have sunk to a post-Cold War low, Mutko has suggested that Russian sport is a victim of a new Cold War.

He has repeatedly rebuked the West for what he says are attempts to sideline Russia from international competition.

He has also lashed out at Russian athletics coaches. He said that they "don't understand how to work without doping" and that dozens of them had been fired.

- Kremlin stays loyal -

The Kremlin has long been loyal to Mutko, insisting he has done nothing wrong.

Mutko's former deputy Yury Nagornykh, reportedly the sports ministry's pointman for covering up positive doping tests, resigned after being suspended over the doping reports, while Mutko's former adviser Natalia Zhelanova also lost her job.

However, the International Olympic Committee's decision on Tuesday to reserve its harshest punishment for Mutko, banning him for life, may be harder to brush off.

In the past, Mutko has fended off major scandals such as WADA's findings on Russian doping and more trivial ones such as revelations that he expensed nearly 100 breakfasts during a lavish 20-day trip to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

Former colleagues say his ability to shrug off scandal has helped Mutko remain at the top of Russian sport.

"He distinguished himself by the fact that we would extinguish scandals," said Andrei Malosolov, the former head of the Russian Football Union's press service, who worked with Mutko.

Mutko, who also heads the Russian Football Union and was president of Zenit Saint Petersburg from 1997 to 2003, has also overseen a push by Russia to increase its presence in international sports governing bodies.

Mutko's ability to survive has come as the judo-loving President Vladimir Putin has spent considerable resources on sport to bolster Russia's international image.

The country spent exorbitant sums on hosting the Sochi Olympics and to win the right to stage the World Cup in 11 cities next summer.

As with many high-ranking officials, Mutko's ties to Putin date to the early 1990s, when they both worked in the mayor's office in Putin's hometown of Saint Petersburg.

"They had friendly relations," Lyudmila Fomichyova, who worked in the same office, told AFP. "Putin does not give up on his people."

Sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya, who studies the Russian elites, says that Mutko has maintained the Kremlin strongman's trust because of his unwavering loyalty.

"Putin gives orders and these orders are fulfilled," she said.

"Putin considers that Mutko does this, which is why he is apparently considered effective."