PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The sanctions come with a dress code. No Russian coat of arms or national emblem on the uniform. No white-blue-and-red tricolor, and any of the colors used must be darker than normal. The official designation on all Olympic garb is “Olympic Athlete from Russia” and the word Russia must be on the bottom and no larger than Olympic Athlete.
Those are the conditions that the International Olympic Committee laid down for Russia’s participation in the XXIIIrd Winter Games in the wake of the worst doping scandal in Olympic history. Four years ago in Sochi the government not only sponsored the extensive doping of the home team, it also oversaw the widespread tampering with samples to make the athletes appear to be clean.
To critics who wanted the Russians banned from these Games after topping the medal table at the last one, the IOC’s penalty is far too lenient. “They haven’t atoned for or acknowledged or taken any steps whatsoever to guarantee that the same sort of thing won’t happen again,” said Dick Pound, the senior IOC member who was the World Anti-Doping Agency’s first president. “It simply looks as if, when you’re dealing with the IOC if you deny, deny, deny and you happen to be a big country, just keep denying because they’ll find a way to let the athletes from your country participate.”
Russia still will have a massive presence at the Games that begin with Friday night’s Opening Ceremony. Its 168-member team is exceeded only by that of the United States and Canada and is only slightly smaller than those that the Russians sent to Vancouver and Turin. All of the athletes were vetted by the IOC, which reduced the proposed pool from 500 to 389 that it deemed untainted.
The dilemma for the Olympic committee was how to penalize Russia without punishing its innocent athletes, only a fifth of whom competed in 2014. “Athletes have the opportunity to take part in the Games but only a young and clean generation,” said IOC president Thomas Bach. “These athletes will be ambassadors of a new, pure Russian sport.”
Officially they will be ambassadors without a country. Their own Olympic committee was suspended in December. They will march into the stadium behind the five-ringed Olympic flag, as did independent athletes from Yugoslavia, India, Kuwait, and other countries at previous Games. If any Russians win a gold medal they will see the Olympic flag raised and hear the Olympic hymn played instead of their own banner and anthem.
But since they will have their country’s name on their uniform, the athletes won’t be deprived of their identity. “They’ll be called Russian athletes and not some kind of neutrals,” observed Alexander Zhukov, chief of the national Olympic committee. “That’s important.”
The Russians recently received a decidedly more substantial victory when the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport decided to overturn the lifetime bans on the 39 Sochi athletes who’d appealed the IOC’s decision, and reinstated the results of 28 of them, including Aleksandr Tretiakov and Alexander Legkov, gold medalists in skeleton and cross-country skiing. The restoration of nine medals put the Russians back atop the table with 29, one ahead of the Americans.
“This, of course, cannot but give us joy,” declared Russian president Vladimir Putin, whose sports ministry proclaimed that “justice has finally triumphed.” “It confirms our position on the fact that the vast majority of our athletes are clean.”
The Russian jubilation was cut short, though, when the IOC refused to invite the 13 vindicated athletes who’d wanted to compete here, a decision that prime minister Dmitry Medvedev called “unfair and illegal, amoral and politicized.” Additionally, the IOC refused to invite three star athletes — short-track speedskater Viktor Ahn, cross-country skier Sergei Ustiugov, and biathlete Antonin Shipulin — who had shown “serious indications” of doping despite not having tested positive. “The scenario is to project Russia as an evil, incompetent, and isolated country,” said Mikhail Degtyarev, head of the State Duma Committee on Sport.
On Friday, nine hours before the Opening Ceremony, CAS slammed the door by dismissing the appeals of more than 40 athletes who’d hoped to compete here, ruling that it was an elgibility decision and that there was no evidence that the IOC had improperly exercised its discretion.
Even without that group the Russians still will field a competitive, if not dominant, squad here. Their men’s hockey team, led by former National Hockey League stars Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, will be favored to win the gold medal for the first time since 1992, when they competed as the Unified Team in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Their figure skating team, traditionally the world’s best, is expected to win two gold medals — the team and the women’s behind world champion Evgenia Medvedeva. And the Russians could collect several medals in freestyle skiing, where Maxim Burov is favored in men’s aerials, and in luge.
Still, given numerous post-Sochi retirements and the multiple bans the Russians have taken significant hits in bobsled, cross-country skiing, short-track speedskating, and in long-track speedskating, where the majority of the current squad has been kept out. That exclusion prompted Olga Graf, who won two medals in 2014, to refuse her invitation, saying that “sport has become a bargaining chip in filthy political games.”
While Graf vocally opposed the “discriminatory and degrading conditions” of essential neutrality that came with Russia competing in the Games, most athletes have accepted the tradeoff.
“Everyone knows where we’re from,” said Kovalchuk, who won a bronze medal at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. “It doesn’t matter. The flag is in our heart.”John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.