The International Olympic Committee (IOC) today affirmed a decision to bar Russian track and field athletes from this summer’s Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro, but also opened a door to allowing individual athletes to compete as part of the Russian national team if they are shown not to have engaged in doping.
Speaking following an extraordinary IOC summit in Lausanne, Switzerland, IOC president Thomas Bach said that the body had unanimously voted to support the decision by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) last week to keep Russian track and field athletes barred from the Rio games because the country had failed to overcome systemic doping among its sportspeople. The IAAF found that Russia still had a "deep-rooted culture of doping" that made it very difficult to trust any of its athletes were clean.
The IOC also acknowledged that accusation and accepted the IAAF’s position that only it should determine whether individual Russian athletes can be considered as exceptions to ban.
Bach’s comments were interpreted widely as confirming the Olympic ban for most Russian track and field athletes. However, in Russia they prompted relieved celebration among some of the country’s top athletes, who saw them as laying out a path that will let them compete in Rio.
Bach’s statements, while supporting the IAAF ban, contained a significant difference: The IOC president said that Russian athletes who were able to prove they were clean enough would be allowed to compete and would go to Rio as part of Russia’s national Olympics team.
This is a potentially important change from what had been proposed for Russian athletes by the IAAF: The IAAF had said that no Russian athletes -- even those accepted as clean -- would be allowed to compete under the Russian flag, saying they would have to go as individuals under a “neutral flag.”
Bach, though, said this was not the case. “If there are athletes qualified, then they will compete as members of the team of the Russian Olympic Committee because only the national Olympic committee can enter athletes for the Olympic Games,” he said. The IOC president noted that, unlike Russia’s track and field federation, the country’s national Olympic committee is not suspended.
Several of the country’s most successful athletes interpreted Bach’s words as seeming to open a route to the Olympics for them.
“This decision I can say, with 100 percent, it gives me optimism. A strong charge of optimism,” Sergey Shubenkov, the world champion in 110-meter hurdles, said, adding that it seemed like some Russian athletes would go to the Olympics.
Virtually all of Russia’s track and field athletics were gathered competing at the country's national championships, which happened to coincide with the IOC decision. The competition, held in the sleepy provincial city of Cheboksary -- about 400 miles from Moscow -- is normally the last qualifying event for Russia’s Olympic team selection.
“They made a decision in the morning, and now some athletes can go to Rio. I was 100 percent sure that they would make a positive decision for us,” said Daria Krishna, a long jumper.
Russian officials reacted more cautiously, saying much was still unclear. The head of Russia’s suspended track and field federation, Mikhail Butov, said that he had appealed to the IOC asking it to clarify how his athletes could qualify. Russian officials have previously said the IAAF decision was unfair and are threatening to appeal it in court.
It remains far from clear, however, how many -- if any -- Russian athletes will be signed off by IAAF to compete.
The IOC statements did not alter how athletes will be selected by the IAAF. The Olympic body affirmed that the IAAF will examine individual Russian athletes on a case-by-case basis, ruling whether they have met criteria to be considered clean.
The IAAF, however, has said these criteria will be very tough and that the vast majority of Russian athletes will not be able to pass them. Announcing the Olympic ban, an IAAF official said the route allowing clean Russian athletes to go to Rio was only a “very tiny crack” and that he expected no more than a handful to pass the IAAF evaluations. Athletes hoping to go will have to show they are not “tainted” by the systemic doping in Russia and present clean tests done outside the country.
“There won’t be many athletes who manage to get through this crack in the door,” Rune Andersen, an investigator for IAAF, said at the rulings announcement in Vienna last Friday.
The IAAF has yet to comment formally on the IOC propositions.
Nonetheless, the atmosphere at the Russian national track and field championships was transformed by the IOC declaration. In the morning before the announcement, Russian athletes had glumly avoided talking about the Olympics or had said they were bitterly resigned to missing them. Lyukman Adams, a triple jumper, compared the result of the ban to a nuclear bomb wiping out Russia’ Olympic hopes.
But by early evening following the IOC announcement, a succession of pleased top athletes passed before reporters, saying the situation has changed significantly. Flushed from successful qualifying finals, the athletes expressed relief.
“Yesterday there were a lot more gloomy faces," said Krishna. "Today everyone is walking around with smiles.”
The athletes celebrating in Cheboksary said they are confident that they can meet the conditions. Shubenkov, the hurdler, said he was not yet totally certain that he could pass them, but said he hoped he would.
Whether the athletes’ excitement is founded will be determined by the IAAF.
Russia’s sports ministry today released a statement saying it was “looking forward” to working with IAAF “to determine how to access eligibility” for competing at Rio. Russia’s Olympic Committee and its Athletics Federation have still not ruled out lawsuits challenging the IAAF ban.