Putin honors Russian Olympic medalists, as IOC lifts doping ban

The IOC has lifted Russia's Olympic suspension that was imposed over doping

An International Olympic Committee statement said the body was lifting the suspension of Russia’s national Olympic committee with immediate effect, after the final anti-doping samples from Russian athletes at Pyeongchang Olympics came back negative.

News of the decision to reinstate Russia came just as athletes were gathering for the award ceremony at the Kremlin, where it was met with evident satisfaction. Putin feted the athletes, toasting champagne with them after pinning Russian state honors on the medal-winners.

"It seems to me that this is a page, which we should turn," Putin told the athletes in a speech. "We should make the relevant conclusions for ourselves. But I hope that international organizations will also, at last, understand that sport needs to be held further away from problems, which have no relation to it."

The decision fulfilled a promise by the IOC’s executive committee on Sunday to lift the suspension, provided there no more positive tests, despite two Russians testing positive during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

Under the ban, Russia was barred from the Pyeongchang Games and its athletes were required to compete as neutrals, under the moniker "Olympics Athletes from Russia," with the Olympic anthem played at medal ceremonies.

The IOC lifted the suspension, despite criticism that Russia has not fully reformed, since its national anti-doping agency still deemed unfit by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Russian officials have never fully accepted the doping allegations against the country, claiming they are politically motivated, and Putin suggested the lifting of the suspension was vindicating.

The rejection of almost half of Russia’s proposed Olympic squad, including many of its top athletes, by an IOC anti-doping panel ahead of the Games meant that Russia also suffered its worst ever gold medal haul at a Winter Olympics -- 13th in the medal table. It was a major drop from the high in Sochi, that many say was aided by doping, where Russia topped the table with 33 medals, including 13 gold.

But in Russia, the 2018 Winter Games have been painted as largely successful, a triumph through adversity. Few in Russia believe the doping allegations levelled by the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency that led to the ban. Instead, most have accepted the argument made by officials and state media here, that the doping scandal is a political conspiracy led by the U.S. to punish Russia.

At the Kremlin ceremony, the "Olympic Athletes from Russia" uniforms were shed for unambiguously national track-suits with "Russia" emblazoned on their backs. A number of Russian athletes asked to make brief speeches personally thanking Putin for his support. Pavel Datsyuk, the ex-Detroit Red Wings star who captained the men’s ice hockey to win gold thanked Putin for "allowing us to prove to the whole world our character isn’t broken."

It helped that the two sports in which Russians won gold were those traditionally most important to the country: figure skating and, most of all, hockey. The 15-year-old prodigy, Alina Zagitova won gold in the women’s figure skating in a spectacular duel with her team-mate, Evgenia Medvedeva, the 18 year-old super-star, who took silver.

The men’s ice hockey win alone would probably have been enough for many Russians, where hockey is paramount among sports. After the men’s team won gold against Germany last Sunday, the first time a Russian side has won an Olympics in two decades, the players sang the Russian national anthem on the podium, in defiance of the IOC ban. The IOC said it would not punish Russia for it.

"That’s emotions," Kovalchuk told ABC News at the Kremlin event. "It was a great moment."

During the event, he was asked whether Russia’s reinstatement by the IOC marked an end to the doping scandal.

"I hope so," Kovalchuk said. "Because, you know, doping, it’s not just in Russia, it’s everywhere and it’s bad and we’re all against that."

The fallout from the doping scandal is far from over, however. The World Anti-Doping Agency today warned that Russia will be ineligible to apply to host international sporting competitions starting April 1 if its national anti-doping body remains suspended.

Russia’s anti-doping agency, RUSADA, was sanctioned by WADA for its role in the doping cover up, in part because of the country’s officials refused to accept findings that the scheme was state-sponsored.

It is unclear if other international sports federations will obey the WADA injunction should RUSADA remain suspended.

A number of biathlon athletes, including members of the U.S. national team, have said they will boycott the sports’ world championship final being hosted in the Russian city Tyumen in March, in protest of what they say is Russia’s continued failure to enforce anti-doping rules.

International soccer's ruling body, FIFA, is also under pressure to probe allegations of doping among Russian soccer players, ahead of the 2018 World Cup that Russia will host in June.