Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the country's authorities will not stop its athletes competing under a neutral flag at the 2018 Winter Olympics, ending the prospect that Russia might boycott the games in response to the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban the country from them on Tuesday.
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Putin also seemed to make an unusual mea culpa, saying Russia had been partly to blame for the ban, though he quickly suggested it was unfair and was based on unproven allegations.
On Tuesday, the IOC’s executive committee barred Russia from the Olympics that will take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea in February, as punishment for systemic doping. That decision means no Russian athletes will compete in their national team colors and their anthem will not play.
But the IOC also said it would allow some individual Russian athletes to take part as neutrals, provided they were able to pass a specially created IOC anti-doping panel.
Ahead of the decision, Russian officials had previously suggested that scenario would be unacceptable, and indicated Moscow might declare a boycott, telling its athletes to skip the Games. Putin himself had suggested it would be “humiliation” for Russian athletes to compete without their national symbols.
But on Wednesday, Putin said that Russia would not block its athletes from competing, saying each person should choose for themselves.
“Undoubtedly, we will not declare any blockade, will not prevent our Olympic athletes from participating, if anyone of them wants to participate in their personal capacity," Putin said while talking to workers of the Gorky Automobile Plant in remarks aired on Russian television.
“They have been preparing for these competitions for their whole careers, and for them it’s very important,” he said.
Putin also said that Russia also bore responsibility for the ban, though suggesting the greater fault lay with its accusers and his meaning was ambiguous.
“We have to say straight out, we ourselves are partly to blame, because it gave grounds for this,” Putin said. But he went on, “I believe that this grounds was used in not a not quite honest manner, to put it mildly.”
Putin described the IOC’s punishment as unfair and “collective punishment,” adding that the evidence for the accusations was largely unproven. He also noted that the IOC had not found evidence that the doping cover-up had been overseen by the Russian state.
“What matters is that the commission wrote in its conclusions that there was no system of state support of doping in Russia. This is an important conclusion," Putin said.
An IOC commission headed by the former Swiss president, Samuel Schmid, while saying there had been a system for concealing doping in Russia, said it had been unable to find any evidence that “highest state authority” had been aware of it.
Schmid’s commission said it had confirmed a system described in the investigations conducted by the Canadian lawyer, Richard McLaren for the World Anti-Doping Agency, that found the head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory had secretly switched out dirty samples from Russian athletes during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi with the help of the country’s FSB intelligence service.
The IOC’s president, Thomas Bach on Tuesday described that scheme as an “unprecedented attack” on the Olympics. The IOC has stripped 11 medals from Russia’s tally in Sochi so far over the doping. But 22 Russian athletes this week appealed at the Court of Arbitration for Sport against their disqualifications from Sochi over their alleged role in the cover-up.
Those Russian athletes that agree to compete under a neutral flag will wear special uniforms with the name "Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR).” Only athletes with no doping record will be permitted to compete. Russian athletes will have to deemed eligible by a panel headed by Valerie Fourneyron, the chair of the International Testing Association, and that includes a representative from WADA, as well as another anti-doping body.
The IOC’s decision was met with an eruption of irate denunciations from Russian officials, who attacked it as unfair and as part of a Western plot.
“They are always trying to put us down in everything – our way of life, our culture, our history and now our sport,” Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, wrote in a Facebook post.
Ivan Melnikov, First Deputy Speaker in Russia’s parliament on Tuesday called the ban “unthinkably harsh”, the news agency Interfax reported.
There were indications though that certain elements of the IOC decision had been sufficient sweeteners to make the ban palatable to Russia.
The head of Russia’s Olympic Committee, Aleksander Zhukov, who himself was suspended by the IOC on Tuesday, told reporters after the decision, that it contained “positive and negative sides.” Zhukov said that it was positive that Russian athletes could still participate in Pyeongchang. He also noted that it was “very important” that the neutral uniforms that Russian athletes would wear would still have the word "Russia" on them.
He also pointed out that the IOC suspension would potentially only last until the final day of the Games and that Russian athletes may yet participate in the Olympics’ closing ceremony under their own flag. The IOC decision contained a clause that should Russia comply with all of its requirements the suspension could be lifted for the ceremony.
Zhukov had said the formal decision on whether Russian athletes will travel to Pyeongchang would likely be made at a gathering of its Olympic committee and its squads next week.
It is now likely that a number of Russian champion athletes will compete. Before Putin’s statement, Victor An, the Korean-born short-track speed-skater said that he would go unless Russia boycotted the Olympics.
“I have prepared for this for 4 years. I can’t just throw it all away,” he said, the Russian-language news site Meduza reported.