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Russia Says Fears About Doping Results Led to Withdrawal of Teams

MOSCOW — Russia’s sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, confirmed Friday that the country was keeping entire teams from competitions over fears that they would test positive for meldonium, the newly banned drug that has been causing chaos in the Russian sports world.

Mutko’s comments followed a confirmation by Russia’s national hockey federation that it had replaced its entire under-18 boys team on the eve of the world championships because the players had taken meldonium before the drug was banned in January.

On Wednesday, the Russian junior team’s coach abruptly announced that the team would not be traveling to Grand Forks, N.D., for the world championships next week and that an under-17 team would play instead. The event is a major international tournament and a showcase for 17- and 18-year-olds who are eligible for the N.H.L. draft in June.

The entire national men’s curling team was also recently replaced before the world championships, and a pro volleyball team mysteriously decided not to field three of its best players in the European championship.

At the time, team coaches refused to address whether the changes were linked to meldonium, but on Friday, Mutko said at a news conference that the roster moves were meant to “minimize losses,” saying that Russian officials “simply did not know” if the teams would test positive at international competitions.

The announcement seemed to illustrate the scale of the troubles engulfing Russian sports because of the drug, even as Russian officials are battling to overcome a ban in track and field for systemic doping. At least 30 Russian athletes, including the tennis star Maria Sharapova, have tested positive for the drug since the World Anti-Doping Agency added meldonium to its list of banned substances on Jan. 1, according to Russia’s sports ministry.

The pre-emptive removals of teams marked a new stage in Russia’s attempts to contain the crisis, but officials continued to assert that the meldonium ban was unfairly ensnaring athletes who had complied with it.

Mutko and the hockey federation said the move to shield the players was taken because Russian officials had no confidence that the teams would not test positive for the meldonium they had taken before the ban. National antidoping agencies and international sports federations were given three months’ notice that meldonium would be prohibited in 2016.

“If we see that an athlete or a group of athletes have taken the drug on prescription in November or October, we don’t know if it will have come out of their systems or not,” Mutko said.

In a statement, the hockey federation said that the team had been prescribed meldonium — in the form of Mildronate — at its training center, but that players had stopped taking the drug in the fall of 2015.

The statement said “the world’s leading laboratories” showed that traces of meldonium can stay in the blood for an amount of time that “can substantially exceed those given in the official description” of the drug, and added that the federation could not risk its athletes’ eligibility.

There is no scientific consensus about the time needed for meldonium to leave athletes’ systems, and that uncertainty prompted biathlon’s governing body to announce this week that it would delay rulings on cases connected to the drug. Russia’s sporting bodies have called for other federations to follow suit and have said athletes should not be penalized while the science around the drug remains uncertain.

Mutko warned that if WADA refused to compromise when deciding penalties for Russian athletes testing positive for meldonium, Russia would be obliged to challenge the rulings in court.

Many Russian national team coaches and physicians have said that before the ban, they regularly gave meldonium to athletes as part of a standard vitamin supplement. Most did not consider it performance-enhancing.

Meldonium boosts blood flow, according to its Latvian manufacturers, and is marketed in Russia primarily as a treatment for those with or at risk of heart conditions.

The hockey federation said the drug had been given to the players for “protection of heart muscles under heightened strain during competition periods.” The federation said the drug was administered by doctors, in accordance with the guidelines from Russia’s Federal Medico-Biological Agency, a state body that monitors drug safety.

In its statement, the hockey federation said it had withdrawn the under-18 team to “protect the rights of young sportsmen.”

Mildronate is sold over the counter in Russia, but guidelines on forms of the drug sold by Russian pharmacies recommend it not be given to those under 18. Sharapova said she began taking the drug in 2006, when she turned 18.

In February, Mutko lamented publicly that children were being forced to dope in Russian schools.

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