Russia will allow its Olympic athletes to compete as neutral after ban

iStock/Thinkstock(MOSCOW) — Russia’s Olympic Committee has voted to back a plan for its athletes to compete at 2018 Winter Olympics under a neutral flag. The move means that there will now likely be a sizeable Russian contingent competing when the Olympics take place in Pyeonchang, South Korea, this February.

Last week, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) barred Russia from the upcoming Olympics as punishment for what it says was a systematic cover up of doping by country’s athletes. The IOC said it would allow some individual Russian athletes to compete as neutrals, provided they could pass an IOC anti-doping panel. It was initially unclear whether that would be acceptable to the Russian authorities, who had previously threatened to boycott the Games.

At a meeting in Moscow Tuesday, Russia’s Olympic Committee voted unanimously to support its athletes wishing to participate in the Games.

Speaking at a televised news conference after the meeting, the committee’s head Alexander Zhukov said he expects around 200 athletes to be able to compete in Pyeongchang, though it would be up to the IOC to determine how many would be approved.

A day before, the Russian Committee said that the majority of its athletes had expressed a desire to compete. Last week, president Vladimir Putin had seemed to clear the way when he said Russian authorities would place no obstacle in the path of those wishing to go.

The Russian Olympic Committee president, Zhukov, said that his committee had decided to swallow the IOC punishment in order to let athletes compete, saying they “have taken the blow ourselves, so as to give athletes the chance to realize their Olympic dreams.”

The IOC’s executive committee suspended the Russian Olympic Committee, including Zhukov himself, last week as a penalty for the doping cover up that already saw Russia partly excluded from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio-de-Janeiro.

Russian athletes wanting to compete will still have to be approved by a specially appointed IOC panel, made up of representatives from different international anti-doping bodies. The IOC’s decision last week said that no Russian athletes with previous doping records will be approved.

“I think the IOC will make sure that the strongest Russian athletes get the invitations, so that, for example, our hockey team consists of the best players,” Zhukov said, according to the Associated Press.

Russian athletes competing in South Korea will now have to wear a specially designed uniform, labeled with “Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR).” Russia’s national anthem and flag will be absent from the Opening Ceremony and medal ceremonies. The Olympic anthem will play instead.

Russian and IOC officials suggested the punishment could end the doping scandal that has ravaged Russian sport for almost two years and has had little sign of abating, amid Russian refusals to accept the idea that the cover-up had been state-sponsored.

Last year, an investigation by the Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren for the World Anti-Doping Agency, WADA, found evidence that Russia’s sports ministry had ordered hundreds of positive samples to be concealed. McLaren found that the system reached its height during the 2014 Winter Olympics that Russia hosted in Sochi, with agents from Russia’s FSB intelligence service helping to switch out positive urine samples from the anti-doping lab there.

The IOC’s own investigation, headed by a former Swiss president Samuel Schmid, confirmed “systemic manipulation” of the anti-doping system in Russia. However, Schmid said he had been unable to prove that the “highest state authorities” were aware of it, stopping short of calling it “state-sponsored.”

Nevertheless, the head of Russia’s sports ministry, Vitali Mutko, was banned for life by the IOC, which said he must take responsibility for the doping scheme.

On Tuesday, Zhukov, like other Russian officials, emphasized that Schmid had found no evidence of a state system of doping. Russian officials previously insisted the scheme was carried out by individual coaches, officials and athletes.

The IOC decision to ban Russia over the doping system remains unprecedented in Olympic history. But since its announcement there have been signs that parts of the decision had been softened enough for Russia to accept.

Speaking directly after the decision, Zhukov had said it was “very important” that the uniforms Russian athletes will wear will still bear the word “Russia.”

The IOC also stated that it may lift the Russian suspension for the Closing Ceremony in Pyeonchang, provided Russia had met the conditions laid out in the decision. That would mean Russian athletes could potentially still appear under their national flag to end the competition.

Russia fielded a team of 232 athletes at the Sochi Winter Olympics. Zhukov said he hoped 208 could take part as neutrals this year in Pyeongchang.

On Tuesday, six members of Russia’s national women’s hockey team were banned by the IOC over doping offenses at the Sochi Olympics. That brings the total number of Russian athletes disqualified from Sochi to 31, a loss that has seen the country drop from the top medal spot at the those Games. Twenty-two Russian athletes have appealed their disqualifications.

After an initial outcry from Russian officials and state media that the IOC decision was unfair, with some even comparing it to “genocide,” attitudes have since mellowed to righteous resignation.

“We are turning the page,” Vitaly Smirnov, the head of Russia’s Independent Civil Anti-Doping Commission, said at the news conference after supporting the Russian Olympic Committee decision.

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