By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's top athletics authorities on Thursday defended 26 athletes at the center of a doping scandal, saying the affair was a question of inefficient procedures rather than illicit substances.
On Wednesday Italy's National Anti-Doping Organisation (NADO) called for two-year bans for 26 athletes, including many of Italy's best-known Olympic and European Championship medal-winners of the last 10 years.
The NADO accuses the athletes of evading doping controls or failing make themselves available for them, in a case which followed a police investigation in the northern Italian region of Trentino Alto Adige.
"These kids aren't people who cheated, it's simply a question of procedure in communicating where they were," said Giovanni Malago, the president of Italy's National Olympic Committee (CONI) in a radio interview.
The athletes repeatedly failed to respond to emails from the authorities in 2011-2012 requesting information on their whereabouts so they could be subjected to random doping tests, according to Corriere della Sera and other dailies on Thursday.
Malago said the problem had been due to inefficient procedures which had since been tightened up.
He said the requests for information had not been sufficiently formal, with "no type of warning," whereas "now there is a warning and then a yellow card and then a red card."
Alfio Giomi, the head of Italy's Athletics Federation, told reporters at a news conference that the federation was "convinced there has been a mistake" and it would make legal assistance available to all the athletes involved.
Giomi, Malago and some of the athletes cited communications failings due to faulty fax machines, problems with email passwords and digital apps that did not work properly.
"There has been negligence and superficiality on the part of many athletes, absolutely, but that has nothing to do with doping," said Giomi. Some athletes were threatening to give up, he said, but Italian athletics "is alive and it's honest."
Giomi complained that Italian newspapers, which gave front-page treatment to the scandal on Thursday, would dedicate "a tenth of the space when they are acquitted in two months' time."
Fabrizio Donato, who won the bronze medal in the triple jump at the 2012 London Olympics, said he was disappointed by the NADO prosecutors who had shown no flexibility in the face of the athletes' explanations.
"I have been going to all the doping checks for 10 years," he said at the same news conference as Giomi. "We want a bit of respect," he added.
The scandal is the latest to his athletics, which
was plunged into crisis last month when a report by the independent commission of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) detailed systematic, state-sponsored doping and related corruption in Russia.
The IAAF, governing body of world athletics, has since voted overwhelmingly to suspend Russia from the sport -- potentially casting one of track and field's most successful nations out of next year's Rio Olympics.
(additional reporting by Antonio Denti)