The IOC has told Russia to stay home from the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeonchang, South Korea.
Given the International Olympic Committee’s track record, few predicted this. But the IOC has brought down the hammer, concluding what numerous reports have long documented — that Russia ran a state-run doping system designed to protect athletes using performance enhancing drugs.
“This should draw a line under this damaging episode,” IOC president Thomas Bach said after the announcement.
Russia, a long-time powerhouse at the Winter Olympics, has been told it can send only athletes who can prove to a panel of experts they are clean and have been properly tested leading up to the Games. If Russian athletes are permitted, there will be no trappings of the Russian state in South Korea. No Russian flags and no Russian anthem. Instead, admitted Russian athletes will compete under the name “Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR).
An array of Russian sport officials have also been told to stay home. Some, including former minister of sport Vitaly Mutko, have been banned for life.
Nobody expects the Russians to quietly digest these punishments and walk away. The president of Russia’s Olympic Committee, Alexander Zhukov, said after the IOC’s decision that his country will appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). But experts already speculate that Russia will likely find the legal route difficult.
“If there is any appeal route for Russia, I think it would be a very challenging one,” said Toronto lawyer James Bunting, who has argued numerous cases before the CAS. “At the end of the day, the IOC has a great deal of discretion and control over its own rules, its own processes and the Olympic Games.
“The IOC has taken a measure it thinks is necessary to protect the integrity of the Olympics and clean athletes around the world. I think even if there is an appeal route, Russia is pushing against a very, very closed door.”
Tuesday’s banishment of the Russian team comes after the IOC had already taken steps to suspend more than 20 Russian athletes from competing in South Korea. Still, the IOC is offering clean athletes a way through, and will ultimately determine the ones to be invited from its list.
Paul Melia, head of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport and the agency responsible for drug-testing Canadian athletes, is happy the IOC took the initiative to suspend Russia this time around.
“I think it’s good there will be one panel and it sounds like the composition will be expert-based. One harmonized set of rules, not different sports doing their own thing as the IOC did for Rio,” he said.
At the same time, Melia said it’s unclear what kind of criteria will be applied to Russian athletes.
“Athletes in Canada have been subject to testing for a number of years. We are doing target testing, intelligence gathering and making sure these athletes aren’t doping,” Melia said. “So you are going to be applying similar criteria but in a shorter window of time.”
How Russia will react is unclear at this point. There is speculation it could take the IOC decision and decide to send no athletes, clean or not, to the Games.
In the months leading up to Tuesday’s decision, Russian President Vladimir Putin called any plans to have Russians compete under a neutral flag “degrading.”
In the moments after the decision, rhetoric from Russian officials was harsh. State television vowed to not broadcast the Games without Russian participation. The president of the Russian Skating Union called the decision an “offensive and insulting” one that “will harm the Olympic movement.”
Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren, the man who was tasked by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to investigate Russian doping, feels the nation may react by simply boycotting.
“I would think there is a high probability that that might be the end result of all this,” McLaren told CBC News.
However, not all Russian officials see it that way.
Zhukov believes there are “positive and negative sides” to the IOC decision, portraying it as a compromise. Zhukov was pleased the IOC has decided to use the term “Olympic Athlete from Russia” as opposed to “Independent Olympic Athlete,” which has previously been used for suspended countries.
“They’ll be called Russian athletes and not some kind of neutrals. That’s very important,” said Zhukov, who added that Russian athletes and officials need time to consider the decision.
Bunting said the IOC decision does consider the idea of athlete fairness.
“Allowing athletes to compete under the Olympic flag does protect to some degree those athletes who have not been involved in the state-sponsored regime,” Bunting said. “For athletes who have spent years training, it balances their interests and rights.”
“I think that it tries to recognize innocent, clean athletes, if those exist in Russia,” he said. “It’s trying to capture the notion that some athletes who have devoted their lives to their sport and to be the best … they will go. Now their anthem won’t be played, but people will know they are Russian athletes.”