COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. —Nikita Avtaneev was strapped to his snowboard, twirling through the thin, crisp air Tuesday, while his Olympic fate was being announced halfway around the world. It wasn't until the end of the snowboarder's training run that he received the news issued by the International Olympic Committee: Russia, Avtaneev's home country, will not be able to compete in the Winter Games in South Korea in February because of widespread doping violations.
The Olympic world immediately began processing the ramifications of the IOC’s unprecedented decision, calculating what the news means to the competition in PyeongChang this winter and to the dreams of athletes who have spent years in training.
Avtaneev, 22, is one of dozens of Russian athletes who hope to take advantage of an exemption allowed by the IOC that permits Olympic hopefuls to compete if they can prove they’re clear. They’d be designated by the IOC as an “Olympic Athlete from Russia” and would participate in the Olympics with no national anthem, flag or team uniform.
“I want to compete,” said Avtaneev, who’s trying for his second Olympics in the men’s halfpipe. “I will stick the sticker on my helmet that I’m Russian.”
Avtaneev is in Copper Mountain this week, competing in a Grand Prix event that serves as a qualifier for the Olympics. Regardless of how he does here, he’ll still need to navigate a separate qualification process to get to PyeongChang — an IOC panel that will review all Russian competitors to determine whether they have been disqualified for past doping violations and whether they have completed all pre-Olympics drug testing.
The IOC’s decision has implications for virtually every sport, barring some formidable medal contenders from competing and insuring that some who do reach the podium might have to contend with an asterisk next to their name because of a diminished field. As the Winter Olympics host nation four years ago, Russia was able to compete in all 15 sports, sending more than 230 athletes to Sochi.
While Russia was initially credited with 33 medals in Sochi, the country’s medal count has been reduced to 22 because of disqualifications related to doping. That number could drop further. Nearly half the Sochi medalists from Russia have been implicated in the doping scheme, and two dozen athletes are in the midst of disciplinary proceedings.
Even before Tuesday’s IOC announcement, some of Russia’s top competitors had already been barred from competing in PyeongChang, including cross-country skier Alexander Legkov, who was stripped of two Sochi medals; skeleton slider Aleksandr Tretyakov, who lost his gold medal from Sochi; and speedskater Olga Fatkulina, who was stripped of her silver medal from Sochi.
Some sports will surely notice the absence of a Russian team more than others. Tuesday’s decision had a big impact on sliding sports, such as bobsled, skeleton and luge; Nordic sports, including cross-country skiing and biathlon; and potentially figure skating, where Russia is a traditional podium threat.
In skeleton, for instance, Russia sent six athletes to Sochi. Five have since been disqualified, and two Russian medals were vacated.
“I’d be lying if I said I had a lot of optimism that they were going to come down with a harsh penalty,” said American slider Matt Antoine, who won a bronze medal in 2014. “I’m extremely pleased to see them make the hard decision — and the right decision — to protect the integrity of the Games. Their entire reputation was really on the line. In the end, they did the right thing.”
At the Sochi Games, Russia won five figure skating medals, including three golds, and at this year’s world championships, Evgenia Medvedeva won the women’s championship, while Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov took bronze in pairs. Medvedeva was only 14 years old during the Sochi Games and has faced no accusations of wrongdoing, which could make her a likely candidate for an IOC exemption. But Medvedeva told the IOC executive committee Tuesday that she could not yet commit to participating as a neutral athlete.
“I always believed that the opportunity to participate in the Olympics should be fought on the ice,” she said. “Unfortunately, now I understand that I may lose that chance because of a situation that doesn’t depend on me. . . . I’m proud of my country. I have tremendous pride to represent it at the Games.”
Avtaneev felt similarly, that Tuesday’s decision effectively punishes many Russian athletes who’ve done nothing wrong. “No, it’s not right,” he said. “Those who are not clear with the doping, it’s their problem, so they should answer for themselves.”
Russia also won five Sochi medals in short-track speedskating, four of which came from Viktor Ahn, one of the greatest to ever lace up a pair skates. Ahn was born in Seoul and competed for South Korea in the 2006 Olympics before obtaining Russian citizenship and skating for his adopted homeland in Sochi, where he won three gold medals and one bronze.
Ahn’s return to Korean soil for a chance to cap his career in his native country promises to be one of these Olympics’ biggest story lines if he is granted neutral competitor status, which seems likely. He’d previously said he intended to retire following the PyeongChang Games.
The decision casts an even darker cloud over the men’s hockey tournament. Already NHL players are barred from competing, and without Russia in the mix, it’s likely that players from the Moscow-based Kontinental Hockey League — widely considered the world’s second best — won’t be allowed to compete, further watering down the competitive pool.
Tuesday’s news was mostly well-received from the administrators, coaches and athletes who compete under the Team USA banner. Tiger Shaw, CEO of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, said the decision “demonstrates a strong commitment to the importance of clean sport.”
“Now we look to the International Ski Federation [FIS] to hold a FIS Council meeting to review the IOC’s decision and related evidence to consider its impact on the Russian Ski Association, its FIS committee members, officials and athletes,” he said in a statement.
Hayley Wickenheiser, a six-time Olympian from Canada and a member of the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission, says the burden now falls on the international federations for each sport as well as the IOC’s review panel to ensure that the Russians who do get to compete in PyeongChang are indeed clean.
“It is not lost on many clean athletes that Russian athletes who were part of this system may have had no choice but to comply,” she said in a statement.
Barry Svrluga and Isabelle Khurshudyan in Washington contributed to this report.