Russian team barred from competing in Winter Olympics

December 05, 2017 - 1:35 pm

(NEW YORK) -- The International Olympic Committee has barred Russia from competing at the Winter Olympics in February as a punishment for its systemic doping but will allow some individual Russian athletes to take part under a neutral Olympic team banner.

The decision came amid intense pressure to punish the country for its alleged state-sponsored cover-up of doping by its athletes. It is an unprecedented punishment for a country in the history of the Olympics.

The IOC’s executive board met Tuesday in Lausanne, Switzerland to hear final reports from two commissions investigating Russian doping and decide on what sanctions Russia should face ahead of the Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The anti-doping agencies of 17 countries, including the United States, had demanded the IOC impose a blanket ban, issuing a collective statement in September that it was time for the body to stop “paying lip-service” to the anti-doping fight.

Last year, an investigation commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) found evidence that Russia had concealed doping by hundreds of its athletes for years, aided by the country’s intelligence services, with the cover-up reaching a crescendo during the 2014 Winter Olympics that Russia hosted in Sochi. That report by the Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren found the scheme had been overseen by Russia’s sports ministry and affected as many as 1,000 athletes across 30 sports.

Last summer, facing similar calls to exclude Russia from the Rio Olympics, the IOC pushed the decision onto the international federations of individual sports, allowing them to choose which Russian athletes could compete. Although virtually Russia’s entire track and field team was barred from the Rio Games, in the end, the country was able to field around 70 percent of its Olympic team.

This time, anti-doping agencies and many athletes had demanded the IOC impose a tougher penalty, arguing that Russia had not done enough to clean up its act.

“The IOC needs to stop kicking the can down the road and immediately issue meaningful consequences,” the 17 national anti-doping agencies, which included those of the U.S. and U.K., said in a joint statement released at a meeting in Colorado in September. Russia’s presence at the Olympics poses a “clear and present danger” to clean athletes, the statement said.

The IOC has so far banned more than 20 Russian athletes from the Olympics for life over doping violations at Sochi. On Tuesday, the IOC has also banned Russia’s former sports minister and current deputy prime minister and head of Russia’s soccer association, Vitali Mutko, from ever taking part in an Olympics again.

Russia has refused to accept McLaren’s key finding that the cover-up was carried out with government support, claiming that it was done by individual coaches, athletes and officials. Instead, Russian officials have denounced McLaren’s report as a U.S.-led plot meant to discredit Russia. In October, President Vladimir Putin suggested the doping allegations were meant to harm his chances in elections next year.

That refusal to accept McLaren’s findings led WADA in October to keep Russia’s national anti-doping agency, RUSADA, suspended, also citing Russia’s failure to provide sufficient access to doping samples.

Russia's sports minister, Pavel Kolobov, has said previously that having its athletes compete under a neutral flag is “unacceptable.” But on Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the Kremlin was not considering a boycott at the moment, though he added the final decision would be up to Putin.

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