Russian athletes will be invited to compete at the 2018 Winter Olympics, but their anthem won’t play, their flag won’t fly and any medals they win won’t accrue toward the country medal count, the International Olympic Committee announced Tuesday. The punishment is the culmination of a three-year investigation into state-sponsored doping leading up to and during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The Russian Olympic Committee was suspended effective immediately, and the IOC said it won’t acknowledge anyone from the Russian Ministry of Sport at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February. The ball is now in Russia’s court. The Kremlin has denied allegations that it orchestrated the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs. Russian officials have threatened to boycott the Pyeongchang Games if its team members are forced to compete under the Olympic flag.
President Vladimir Putin has invested heavily in international sport competitions, including the $50 billion 2014 Games at the Black Sea resort, to boost national pride and demonstrate that Russia is capable of world-class megaprojects. In Sochi, he showered favors including luxury cars on Russian champions as the national team topped the medals table. The team has since been stripped of 11 of the 33 medals it won in Sochi as a result of doping violations.
Those revocations followed the report last year of an independent commission led by Richard McLaren, a Canadian law professor, that concluded Russia ran a “systematic scheme” to obscure positive dope-test results involving about 1,000 athletes from 2011-2015. The program was organized after Russia finished in 11th place with just three gold medals at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, its worst performance since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The IOC found “systemic manipulation of the anti-doping system in Russia,” the organization said Tuesday. President Thomas Bach called it “an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic Games.”
After the McLaren report, Putin ordered officials to set up a new anti-doping body, while maintaining there was no state-run program of cheating. Putin has suggested that the U.S. is using the issue as a means to influence Russian presidential elections next March, in which he’s widely expected to seek and win a fourth term.
Russia’s new drug-testing body hasn’t yet been accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Anti-doping agencies from 37 different countries, including the U.S., have called for a total ban on Russian participation in the 2018 Olympics. The IOC stopped short of a blanket ban in order to allow Russian athletes who have not been implicated in the doping scandal to compete. World champion figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva, for example, was 14 during the Sochi Games. Her teammate, Alina Zagitova, also a medal contender in Peyongchang, was 11. “The Russian team performing without our flag or anthem is unacceptable because Russia is not just a great power, but a great sports power,” Pyotr Tolstoy, deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament, said on state-run Channel 1, adding that Putin voiced a similar position at a recent forum.
The New York Times reported last week that the diaries of Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping lab who’s currently in hiding in the U.S., detail conversations with the then-Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko about the cheating. Putin promoted Mutko to Deputy Prime Minister soon after McLaren’s report was published. Mutko, who denies any involvement in doping, is now in charge of organizing next year’s FIFA soccer World Cup in Russia. He was handed a lifetime ban from participating in the Olympics, the IOC said.
If Russian athletes skip Pyeongchang, it will mark the first time the Olympic superpower didn’t compete since 1984, when the Soviet Union rallied 14 Communist countries in a boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics in response to an American-led protest of the 1980 Games in Moscow.