"The Olympics: First Blood," seethed one Russian headline on Friday as the country absorbed the blow of seeing its top five female athletes suspended from the Beijing Olympics for failing doping tests, reported dpa.
Ripe with the devastated accents of athletes and coaches alike, the Russian press was not immune from suggesting that the timing of the suspension, if not the actual results of the test, was politically motivated.
"A delayed-action doping bomb has exploded the Russian track and field team," popular daily Moskovsky Komsomolets led its pages Friday.
The international governing body for track and field (IAAF) announced the suspension on Thursday of a total of seven female athletes for "a fraudulent substitution of urine" in doping tests from 2007.
Elena Soboleva, one of those accused, set a world record in the 1,500-metre race at this year's world indoor championships, and four other Olympic team stars - Darya Pishchalnikova, Gulfia Khanafeyeva, Tatyana Tomashova and Yulia Fomenko - were considered top medal contenders at the Beijing Games.
"You can't imagine what a humiliation this is. We have been martyred by the procedures," Soboleva told Sovietsky Sport newspaper in an interview headed, "The Ground has been Pulled from Under Her Feet."
"I am sure this is a provocation," Soboleva remonstrated. "They are just afraid of us. It's not a secret to anyone that we were medal contenders. And I was, personally, a favorite for gold. I've worked toward this for so many years, and now it's all down the drain."
Reports highlighted that all seven athletes had denied the charges, but that the timing of the IAAF's announcement left them no time to appeal the decision before the start of the athletics competition on August 15 in Beijing.
"Everybody perfectly understands that there is no time because this decision has been announced so late," Soboleva was quoted as saying.
According to Russian media, the IAAF knew the results of the doping test already by mid-June.
"Some very troubling questions still have to be asked," Nikolai Durmanov, head of the Russian Olympic Committee anti-doping department, said in televised comments. "Most importantly, why are last year's doping tests suddenly emerging as an issue one week before the start of the games?"
Business daily Kommersant appraised the situation: "The extent of the scandal could be comparable only to the loss of the US squad before the Athens Olympics, but there is a crucial difference: Formally, none of the girls has been caught using doping drugs or been involved in distributing them."