The International Olympic Committee banned the Russian federation from the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea on Tuesday, while leaving the door open for individual Russian athletes to compete, in a historic act of punishment for widespread doping Olympic officials believe was supported by the Russian government.
Russia’s flag and anthem will be absent from February’s PyeongChang Games, the IOC decided, as penalties for a doping regime that included the sabotage of drug testing during the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
Russian athletes who can prove their innocence of drug cheating will be permitted to compete in PyeongChang under the designation of an “Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR).” The Olympic anthem will be played in any ceremony for medals won by these athletes, and Russia’s official medal count for the games will stand at zero.
In a Tuesday evening news conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, IOC President Thomas Bach called Russia’s doping system “an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic games and sports.”
“This decision should draw a line under this damaging episode and serve as a catalyst for a more effective and a more robust anti-doping system,” Bach said.
Bach was joined Tuesday by Samuel Schmid, the former president of Switzerland, who led a commission investigating the allegations against Russia for the IOC. Schmid’s report confirmed “the systemic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and system in Russia,” he said.
A nation’s Olympic team had never been banned for doping, or any competitive violation. The IOC has issued politically motivated bans in the past, such as those imposed against Germany and Japan during World War II, and against South Africa during apartheid.
Russian lawmakers and other officials quickly rejected the IOC decision as politically motivated.
“We won’t apologize,” said Pyotr Tolstoy, a leading member of the Russian State Duma, Russia’s lower house of legislature. “We won’t apologize to Bach, to the former president of Switzerland, who prepared this report so sweetly. We have nothing to apologize for and neither do our athletes.”
Former Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko, whom the IOC banned for life from Olympic Games, did not reply to requests to comment. Mutko consistently has denied Russian government involvement in drug cheating, and told reporters at an event in Moscow last week promoting the 2018 World Cup in Russia that “there is no proof” of state-sponsored doping.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose spokesman did not reply to a request to comment Tuesday, previously had termed a potential ban as “humiliating,” and implied it would provoke a Russian boycott.
Bach, who has had a close relationship with Putin in the past, told reporters in Lausanne he had not discussed the IOC’s punishment with Putin. A delegation from Russia made a last-minute plea for leniency, Bach said, before the IOC’s executive board made its decision.
“An Olympic boycott has never achieved anything,” Bach said. “I don’t see any reason for a boycott by the Russian athletes, because we will allow the clean Russian athletes to participate.”
Russia’s anti-doping agency has been suspended since 2015, calling into question how the IOC will verify athletes who have trained in Russia have done so without the assistance of banned substances.
To determine which Russian athletes will be allowed to compete, the IOC plans to establish an independent testing authority, Bach said, that will include officials from the World Anti-Doping Agency. The IOC fined Russia’s Olympic Committee $15 million, which it intends to use to pay for this independent testing authority, as well as for past investigations into Russian doping.
Anti-doping officials — some of whom heavily criticized the IOC for not levying a similar punishment before the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro — praised Tuesday’s decision.
“Over the past three years, a high-stakes game of chicken has been played between those willing to sacrifice the Olympic ideals by employing a state-directed doping program to cheat to win and, on the other side, athletes unwilling to stand silent while their hopes and dreams were stolen and the Olympic Games hijacked,” said Travis Tygart, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. “Today the IOC listened to those who matter most — and clean athletes won a significant victory.”
“The IOC took a strong and principled decision,” U.S. Olympic Committee chief executive Scott Blackmun said. “There were no perfect options, but this decision will clearly make it less likely that this ever happens again.”
The absence of Russian athletes would sap many events of top competitors. In the 2014 Winter Games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia led the medal count, with 33 overall and 13 golds. But Russia’s success at those Olympics, according to former Moscow antidoping lab director Grigory Rodchenkov, came with some assistance behind the scenes.
Rodchenkov has said he oversaw a state-run doping system that provided hundreds of top athletes with banned performance-enhancing substances for years. When the Olympics came to Russian soil, according to Rodchenkov, he ran a clandestine effort, with the assistance of government agents, to replace tainted urine samples taken from cheating Russian athletes during the Sochi Games with clean urine samples he collected months before.
Rodchenkov’s testimony, bolstered by two other Russian whistleblowers, have been supported by a series of investigations by the World Anti-Doping Agency since late 2015 that have concluded more than 1,000 Russian athletes across at least 30 sports, including both summer and winter events, had been involved in doping that dated from at least 2011.
Russian sports ministry officials have apologized for widespread doping among their athletes, but forcefully have denied allegations of government involvement and painted Rodchenkov as a rogue actor.
Last month, a Russian court issued an arrest warrant for Rodchenkov, who fled the country for the United States in 2015 after two colleagues at Russia’s anti-doping agency died suddenly. Rodchenkov, who was the subject of the Netflix documentary “Icarus” earlier this year, is living somewhere in the United States under the protection of federal authorities.
Jim Walden, Rodchenkov’s lawyer, released a statement praising the IOC decision for sending “a powerful message that it will not tolerate state-sponsored cheating by any nation.”
“As the world has seen, Dr. Rodchenkov provided credible and irrefutable evidence of the Russian state-sponsored doping system,” Walden wrote. “Russia’s consistent denials lack any credibility, and its failure to produce all evidence in its possession only further confirms its high-level complicity.”
Andrew Roth contributed to this report from Moscow.