By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Olympic medal-winning middle distance runner Nick Willis would not be surprised to see Russian athletes competing at this year's Rio Games, despite an indefinite ban being placed on the country in the wake of a huge doping scandal.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) voted to suspend Russia from the sport in November after a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report alleged widespread corruption and a state-sponsored drugs culture.
Russia's Athletics Federation (ARAF) have committed to an overhaul of their anti-doping programs, though they must convince IAAF inspectors they have met the standards imposed by the world governing body to have the ban lifted ahead of Rio.
"If I had to bet on it, I would say that they're going to be there," Willis, a vocal critic of doping in sports told Reuters from his home in Michigan. "If that had always been the understood agreement between them beforehand... that would be very sad."
Russia's athletes are continuing to train ahead of the Aug. 5-21 Games, competing in a series of domestic meetings indoors in the hope they will earn a reprieve after investigators report back to the IAAF council later this month.
Sports administration heavyweights, including former WADA head Dick Pound, have said they doubted the country would be cleared in time.
Willis, who was promoted to the silver medal from bronze in the 1500 metes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics after winner Rashid Ramzi from Bahrain tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, felt the sport was heading in the right direction.
"I think the sport is significantly cleaner than it was 10 to 20 years ago," he said.
"There is just so much more awareness about it now and in my opinion it's a very small percentage who are doping compared to the 80s, 90s and 2000s."
Willis has just returned to his home in the U.S. following two months training in his native New Zealand, which doubles as a holiday for him and his family, wife Sierra and young son Lachlan.
The 32-year-old has said having more children was something he and his wife were considering and he had some concerns about the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil that has been linked to birth defects.
"It would be irresponsible not to think about it and how it will affect our family," he said.
"We have come to a point now that whatever the worst case scenario, I should be able to compete without it impacting our family's ability to grow in the future if we want to do that."
The worst case scenario involved freezing his sperm, he said.
Willis was looking ahead to Rio, though first needed to focus on the world indoors championships in Portland, Oregon from March 17-20.
He has the third-fastest time this year for his preferred event of three minutes, 36.12 seconds behind Morocco's Abdalaati Iguider (3:34.94) and American Matt Centrowitz (3:35.91).
Willis, however, felt his off-season fitness work, replicating the gut-busting sessions former New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard used to put the likes of triple Olympic champion Peter Snell through, would pay dividends later in the season.
"I wouldn't say that I've run myself into the ground. I'd just say that I have had a much more consistent patch of health where I have been able to put in more consistent doses of higher volumes," he said.
"The way things are projecting it's looking good but we have to see what happens in August."
(Editing by John O'Brien)