By Duncan Mackay
July 31 - A number of leading Russian athletes who would have been among the favourites for gold medals in the Beijing Olympics, which open next week, have today been suspended by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

The seven include Yelena Soboleva, the world indoor 1500m champion who tops this year's world rankings for the 800 and 1500 metres, the former world 1500m champion Tatyana Tomashova, who finished second to Dame Kelly Holmes in Athens four years ago, and Darya Pishchalnikova, the European discus gold medallist who is top-ranked in the world in 2008.

Also suspended is Yulia Fomenko, the third member of Russia's women's 1500m team in Beijing, which means they may not be represented in the event and Gulfiya Khanafeyeva, the former world record holder for the hammer.

Another athlete suspened was Olga Yegorova, the athlete who narrowly escaped a ban for Erythropoietin (EPO) on the eve of the 2001 World Championships due to a technicality and who Paula Radcliffe publicly protested about in Edmonton as the Russian won the gold medal.

Also banned is 800m runner Svetlana Cherkasova.

Yegorova and Cherkasova had not qualified for Beijing.

The athletes have been provisionally suspended, the IAAF said, for "a fraudlent substitution of urine which is both a prohibited method and also form of tampering with the doping control process".

In a major breakthrough for the anti-doping movement the IAAF revealed that the rule violations were established following the storage of samples by them and re-analysis using comparative DNA techniques, and were the result of a specific investigation which had lasted more than a year.

"All are definitely suspended and will miss the Beijing Olympics," said Russia's athletics chief Valentin Balakhnichev.

"We received a letter from IAAF, which said that six of our athletes - Yelena Soboleva, Daria Pishchalnikova, Gulfia Khanafeyeva, Tatiana Tomashova, Yulia Fomenko, Olga Yegorova and Svetlana Cherkasova - were temporarily suspended.    

"The reason of the suspension was the convergence of DNA in the samples that were given by the athletes for dope testing last year."

The first set samples compared were from out-of-competition tests in April and May last year, the set second from the 2007 World championships in Osaka and then control samples were carried last week in Moscow and a comparison taken of their DNA readings.

The results between the one's taken last Spring and last week were shown to be different, suggesting that the samples had been tampered with.

All the athletes have 14 days to appeal and to request a personal hearing.

Soboleva, though, protested her innocence and vowed to clear her name.

She said: "I was informed of this today.

"I totally disagree with this verdict as I have absolutely no reason to consider myself guilty.

"However, as we are talking about the national team and the Olympic Games, I am resigned to the IAAF's decision."

At the same time Romania have banned all three of their female 1500m runners due to compete in Beijing for doping.

Liiana Popescu, Elena Antoci and Cristina Vasiloiu have all been suspended after all tested positive for EPO.

Popescu was ranked fifth in the world this year.

Octavian Morariu, head of Romania's Olympic and Sport Committee, said: "They all stay at home."

Among the people to benefit could be Britain's Lisa Dobriskey, who less than a week ago was ranked outside the world's top 25 but now, having a run new personal best of 4min 00.64sec on Tuesday, will travel to Beijing as the fourth best in the world as she seeks to retain for Britain the title Dame Kelly won.

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