— -- The International Olympic Committee has barred Russia from the Winter Olympics this February over systemic doping, but will allow some individual Russian athletes to take part under a neutral Olympic flag.
The IOC's executive committee announced in a statement that it was barring Russia's national Olympic committee from the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The punishment, which will mean that no Russian athletes will compete under the country's colors, is unprecedented in Olympic history and came amid intense pressure to punish the country for its alleged state-sponsored cover-up of doping by its athletes.
In a statement released after it met in Lausanne, Switzerland, the committee said it acted on the recommendations of an IOC commission headed by former Swiss President Samuel Schmid to investigate Russian doping. The statement said his report confirmed "the systemic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and system in Russia," including efforts to conceal doping at the Sochi Winter Olympics, which Russia hosted in 2014.
At a press conference Tuesday after the decision was announced, Schmid said his commission did not find any evidence that the Kremlin was aware of the doping cover-up, but the IOC banned Russia's former sports minister and its current head of the national soccer association, Vitaly Mutko, for life from the Olympics, along with his former deputy Yuri Nagornykh.
The anti-doping agencies of 17 countries, including the United States, demanded the IOC impose a blanket ban, issuing a collective statement in September that it was time for the body to stop "paying lip service" to the anti-doping fight.
The IOC stopped short of that, instead saying that some Russian athletes will be permitted to compete in Pyeongchang under a specially created status -- "Olympic athlete from Russia," according to the IOC statement. Those athletes will have to be cleared by an IOC panel that will confirm they have no doping violations on their records and that they have undergone sufficient testing. Athletes approved by the panel will compete in a uniform with "Olympic athlete from Russia" written on it and under an Olympic flag. The Olympic anthem will be played in place of Russia's national anthem at medal ceremonies.
Scott Blackmun, the CEO of the United States Olympic Committee, called the decision "strong and principled."
"There were no perfect options, but this decision will clearly make it less likely that this ever happens again. Now it is time to look ahead to Pyeongchang," he said in a statement.
The IOC report confirmed the findings of investigations commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which found evidence that Russia concealed doping by hundreds of its athletes for years, aided by the country's intelligence services, with the cover-up reaching a crescendo during the Sochi Olympics. An investigation, conducted by the Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren for the World Anti-Doping Agency last year, found that Russia's sports ministry had overseen the cover up and led to Russia being partly excluded from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
That year, facing similar calls to ban Russia from the Rio Olympics, the IOC pushed the decision onto individual sports' international federations, allowing them to choose which Russian athletes could compete. Although virtually all of Russia's track and field team was barred from the Rio Games, the country was able to field about 70 percent of its Olympic team.
The penalty enacted on Tuesday was more severe and dealt a humiliating blow to a country where international sports have become a central pillar of President Vladimir Putin's rule.
Russia has never accepted McLaren's conclusions that the cover-up was state-sponsored and the IOC's decision was met in Moscow with an eruption of angry denunciations from officials and members of parliament. Some Russian politicians immediately raised the possibility that the country would boycott the Winter Olympics, with the first deputy speaker of Russia's Parliament, Ivan Melnikov, saying it would be "incorrect" for Russia's team to travel to Pyeongchang under a neutral flag. Speaking to the news agency Interfax, however, he suggested that the Kremlin may decide otherwise, in which case he would support its decision.
The Kremlin did not immediately comment on the IOC's decision, but on Monday spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was not considering a boycott, though Putin would make the final decision. Putin has previously denounced the doping allegations as designed to harm him politically and has suggested it would be unacceptable for Russian athletes to compete without their national symbols.
There were signs, however, that the IOC decision may be acceptable to Russia. Aleksander Zhukov, the head of Russia's Olympic Committee, who himself was suspended on Tuesday by the IOC, said that it had been a victory that the word "Russia" would be on the neutral uniforms to be worn by those Russian athletes allowed to compete.
"They'll be called Russian athletes and not some kind of neutrals ... that's very important," The Associated Press quoted Zhukov as saying in Lausanne. Zhukov said that a decision on whether Russian athletes should take part in Pyeongchang would be made at a meeting of his committee with members of Russia's Olympic squads.
Zhukov also noted that the IOC statement announcing the decision included a clause that made it more palatable. The statement said that if Russia complies with the decision then its suspension could be lifted for the closing ceremony in Pyeongchang. That could mean Russia's team, having competed as neutrals, would be effectively restored at the close, though it appeared any medals won by its athletes would not be recorded to the country.
Zhukov said that another "positive decision" was that the IOC's statement Tuesday suggested the sanctions closed the issue of Russian doping. The IOC statement quoted the body's president, Thomas Bach, that the sanctions should now "draw a line under this damaging episode."
At a news conference, Bach added he felt there was no reason for a Russian boycott now.
"An Olympic boycott has never achieved anything," he said. "Secondly, I don't see any reason for a boycott by the Russian athletes because we allow the clean athletes there to participate."
Russian athletes reacted cautiously to the decision, with some saying they were not ready to say yet whether they would compete under a neutral flag.
"There is already a possibility to perform at the Olympics and that is already good," Elena Soboleva, a former junior world champion skier in individual sprint and relay now on Russia's national team, told ABC News. "And what’s next, whether we will perform or not is already a different question. I don't know anything."
Danil Akimov, a senior coach from the women's ski team, said he felt the decision should be left to the athletes to decide whether to go or not.
"Athletes ought to decide for themselves," he told ABC News by phone. "If it’s acceptable for an athlete then they’ll go under a neutral flag. If he will say no, then that means no. My personal point of view would all the same be that Russia should perform under the Russian flag."