(Reuters) - Dozens of Russian athletes who competed at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, including at least 15 medal winners, were part of a state-run doping program, the New York Times reported on Thursday.
The report is broadly consistent with revelations by an independent World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) commission last November of widespread state-sponsored doping in Russia, which led to a ban on the country competing in international athletics competitions.
Unless that ban is lifted, Russian athletics competitors will miss the Rio Olympics in Brazil, set to run Aug. 5-21.
According to the New York Times report, which is based largely on evidence from Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of the country's anti-doping laboratory during the Sochi Olympics, those involved included some of Russia’s biggest stars of the Games, including 14 members of its cross-country ski team and two veteran bobsledders who won two golds.
The newspaper said it could not independently verify Rodchenkov's account of the doping operation. Reuters was not able to verify details of the New York Times report.
Russian anti-doping experts and members of the intelligence services secretly broke into tamper-proof bottles to replace urine samples tainted by performance-enhancing drugs with clean urine collected months earlier, the New York Times reported, citing Rodchenkov, who ran Russia's drug testing lab.
By the end of the 2014 Olympics, as many as 100 dirty urine samples were expunged, Rodchenkov told the newspaper.
"We were fully equipped, knowledgeable, experienced and perfectly prepared for Sochi like never before," Rodchenkov is quoted as saying in the report, which stated he received the prestigious Order of Friendship by Russian President Vladimir Putin after the Sochi Olympics. "It was working like a Swiss watch."
Rodchenkov resigned from his position last November after the Moscow-based laboratory he oversaw stopped operating when its accreditation was suspended by WADA.
"These allegations are very detailed and very worrying and we ask the World Anti-Doping Agency to investigate immediately," International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams said in a statement. "Based on the findings of a WADA inquiry the IOC will not hesitate to act with its usual policy of zero tolerance for doping and defending the clean athletes."
The report is the latest alleging widespread performance-enhancing drug use by the country's athletes. In the past week, CBS News aired an interview with a whistleblower, saying that at least four of Russia's gold medal winners at the Sochi Olympics were using steroids.
WADA President Craig Reedie, speaking after a two-day meeting in Montreal with the agency's executive committee and foundation board, had not read the New York Times report when asked to comment.
"You are making the assumption I know what you know. I've been chairing a meeting all day," said Reedie. "I think the pressure will be on WADA to respond and investigate and I gave a rather strong commitment to the athletes we would do just that."
Former Olympian Beckie Scott, who is the chair of WADA's athletes committee, told reporters on the sides of the WADA meeting that the New York Times article was "extremely disturbing but not surprising."
Putin staked his reputation on the Sochi Games, which at around $50 billion was the most expensive in Olympic history. Russia led all countries with 13 gold medals and 33 overall at in Sochi.
Russia's sports minister Vitaly Mutko dismissed the New York Times report as nonsense, according to the TASS news agency.
"I believe these guys, they are outstanding athletes, the charges are nonsense," Mutko, who has previously said doping checks at Sochi were under the control of international experts, was quoted as saying. "The charges against them are groundless. We will study this article and see how to react."
According to the New York Times report, Rodchenkov was given a list that named the athletes involved in the doping program and their competition schedule and was to substitute their samples if any went on to win a medal.
"This is as bad as we've seen assuming what Rodchenkov says is true, and he does have the knowledge of what was going on," former WADA president Dick Pound, who headed the independent commission last year, told Reuters.
The head of Russia's Cross-country Skiing Federation Elena Vyalbe told Russia's R-Sport news agency that there was "no doping."
Russian skeleton team head coach Willi Schneider told TASS the latest allegations had not been proven. "These are just rumors," he said.
(Additional reporting by Steve Keating and Allison Lampert in Montreal; Writing by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Bill Rigby)