Markus Schreiber
August 07, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) Bruised and battered but still wearing a gold medal, the first Russian champion in Rio de Janeiro seemed to mirror his country's standing at the Olympics.

Despite eye and hand injuries that might have ruled out a lesser rival, Beslan Mudranov upset the reigning world champion in his judo final. The victory showed that Russia is set to remain a serious contender for medals in Rio, even though it lost some of its top athletes to a widespread doping scandal.

''For us, this medal means a lot because people were putting a lot of psychological pressure on us,'' Mudranov said. ''A gold medal like this will really please our country.''

Russia will field no weightlifters and only one track and field athlete among the 278 athletes it has sent to Brazil, shutting down two of the main medal producers for the sports superpower. But it has been extremely successful in minimizing the damage elsewhere and escaping a blanket ban, with a mixture of a savvy public relations campaign and old-fashioned backroom lobbying.

On the world stage, Russian prestige hasn't fared so well lately. The legacy of its Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 has been tarnished by the doping scandal, and on Sunday, it was kicked out of the Rio Paralympics over evidence of systematic drug cheating.

The July 18 report by World Anti-Doping Agency investigator Richard McLaren alleging a state-run doping cover-up across dozens of summer and winter Olympic sports had little effect on the Russian team. Its track and weightlifting athletes were likely to be excluded before the report came out because of other doping scandals, making up most of the 109 athletes who are missing in Rio from its original 387-member delegation.

Russia is still likely to dominate in those events where it has been traditionally strong: gymnastics, synchronized swimming and wrestling.

The country first staved off the threat of a blanket ban from the International Olympic Committee, then fought the imposition of further restrictions on its team from the sports federations which implement the IOC rules.

One hastily imposed IOC rule was overturned, allowing several athletes caught in doping tests back on the Russian team, while even some implicated in the McLaren report as having benefited from a cover-up were reinstated.

Yulia Efimova, the 100-meter breaststroke world champion, was initially banned with six other Russian swimmers who either had positive tests or were implicated in the scandal. Now, all are expected to be added to the start lists in Rio. Efimova, who received a smattering of boos after her name was announced as the winner of her heat Sunday, described the last six months as ''crazy'' and said she didn't ''understand what's going on.''

An IOC rule excluding Russians who have not faced regular drug testing was ignored by all sports, except for rowing, where Russia was reduced to fielding only one boat - although it was never a serious contender for medals there.

Russia's lobbying power in the federations probably helped in judo, where President Vladimir Putin is the honorary head of the international federation, and fencing, where Putin's billionaire ally Alisher Usmanov runs the sport's world governing body.

The most powerful man in the Olympics - IOC President Thomas Bach - has business and personal links to Russia. A former fencer, his sport has been boosted by Usmanov's financial support. Russia also has sustained minimal damage in events like swimming, where it also holds some influence.

Meanwhile, an international public relations campaign spread Russia's soft power worldwide and undermined McLaren's report. The U.S. firm Burson-Marsteller distributed a speech by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev urging the IOC to keep Russia in the games. Embassies in the U.S. and Canada pressed for an exemption for Russia's top track and field star, Yelena Isinbayeva, although none has been granted for the pole vaulter.

Russia also has sought to present McLaren's report as flawed and overly reliant on the testimony of former Moscow anti-doping lab chief Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, who now lives in the U.S., and admitted to covering up doping samples on what he said were orders from the Russian Sports Ministry. Rodchenkov had faced accusations in Russia of supplying banned substances in 2012, a case that was closed in unclear circumstances, and faces a criminal case in Russia over the destruction of samples.

Reacting to the McLaren report last month, Putin said the officials who were implicated would be suspended for a further investigation - although not Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko.

The Russian leader also made clear what he thought of the report's conclusions, calling Rodchenkov ''a man with a scandalous reputation.''

''Can conclusions be trustworthy and compelling if they are exclusively based on the evidence of people like this?'' Putin asked.

In recent weeks, however, evidence has emerged to back up some of Rodchenkov's allegations.

Nine Russian weightlifters have been confirmed for failing retests of samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. All tested positive for oral turinabol, a steroid that was widely used by the former East Germany and a substance that Rodchenkov said he had given athletes in a ''cocktail'' along with alcohol.

''This is a strong indication that they were part of a centrally dictated program,'' the Court of Arbitration for Sport said in upholding the Olympic ban on the Russian weightlifters.

Russia got a boost when an IOC meeting before the Olympics saw senior officials take turns blasting WADA for what many saw as exceeding its mandate.

Mutko was jubilant, telling the Russian state news agency Tass that ''I'm very pleased that the IOC session supported what we insisted upon,'' adding that WADA ''needs to be reformed.''

Even with evidence of the mass manipulation of tests, Mutko said, WADA should not have dared to accuse Russia of state-sponsored doping. ''If you want to prove that there is some kind of manipulation going on in some laboratory, then you shouldn't accuse a country,'' he added.

Despite being battered by the turbulence, Russia remains strong on the Olympic stage.

The opening gold medal by Mudranov probably pleased Putin, who is often described as the world's most famous judo fan and is so passionate about the sport that he recorded a DVD to help train athletes.

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AP National Writer Paul Newberry contributed to this story.

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