By Rebecca R. Ruiz and Tariq Panja
LAUSANNE, Switzerland – Russia’s Olympic team has been barred from the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The country’s government officials are forbidden to attend, its flag will not be displayed at the opening ceremony and its anthem will not sound. Any athletes from Russia who receive special dispensation to compete will do so as individuals wearing a neutral uniform, and the official record books will forever show that Russia won zero medals.
That was the punishment issued Tuesday to the proud sports juggernaut that has long used the Olympics as a show of global force but was exposed for systematic doping in previously unfathomable ways. The International Olympic Committee, after completing its own prolonged investigations that reiterated what had been known for more than a year, handed Russia penalties for doping so severe they were without precedent in Olympics history.
The ruling cemented that the nation was guilty of executing an extensive state-backed doping program. The scheme was rivaled perhaps only by the notorious program conducted by East Germany throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
Now the sports world will wait to see how Russia responds. Some Russian officials have threatened to boycott if the IOC delivered such a severe punishment.
President Vladimir V. Putin seemed to be predicting a boycott of the Pyeongchang Games, since his foreign policy in recent years has been based on the premise that he has rescued Russia from the humiliation inflicted on it by the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, has said no boycott was under discussion before the announcement, however, and the news broke late in the evening in Moscow when an immediate official reaction was unlikely.
In barring Russia’s team, Olympic officials left the door open for some Russian athletes. Those with histories of rigorous drug testing may petition for permission to compete in neutral uniforms. Although it is unknown exactly how many will clear that bar, it is certain that the contingent from Russia will be depleted significantly.
Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC, has said he was perturbed not only by Russia’s widespread cheating but by how it had been accomplished: by corrupting the Olympic laboratory that handled drug testing at the games, and on orders from Russia’s own Olympic officials.
In an elaborate overnight operation at the 2014 Sochi Games, a team assembled by Russia’s sports ministry tampered with more than 100 urine samples to conceal evidence of top athletes’ steroid use throughout the course of competition. More than two dozen Russian athletes have been disqualified from the Sochi standings as a result, and Olympic officials are still sorting through the tainted results and rescinding medals.
At the coming games, Bach said Tuesday, a special medal ceremony will reassign medals to retroactive winners from Sochi. But, in light of legal appeals from many of the Russian athletes who have been disqualified by the IOC, it is uncertain if all results from Sochi will be finalized in time.
The punishment announced Tuesday resembles what anti-doping regulators had lobbied for leading up to the 2016 Summer Games, where Russia was allowed to participate but in restricted numbers. It is likely to face a legal appeal from Russia’s Olympic Committee.
The decision was announced after top International Olympic Committee officials had met privately with Alexander Zhukov, the president of Russia’s Olympic Committee; Vitaly Smirnov, Russia’s former sports minister who was last year appointed by Putin to lead a national anti-doping commission to redeem Russia’s standing in global sports; and Evgenia Medvedeva, a two-time world skating champion.
“Everyone is talking about how to punish Russia, but no one is talking about how to help Russia,” Smirnov said, sipping a hot beverage in the lobby of the Lausanne Palace Hotel before delivering his final appeal to officials that afternoon. “Of course we want our athletes there, and we want the Russian flag and anthem,” he said.
But that appeal was rejected in light of the conclusions of Samuel Schmid, a former president of Switzerland whom the Olympic committee appointed last year to review the findings of a scathing investigation commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Tuesday’s penalty was also in line with what had been advocated by two key whistleblowers whose accounts upended Russia’s standing in global sports over the last several years: Gregory Rodchenkov, the chemist who spent 10 years as Russia’s anti-doping lab chief and was key to carrying out the cheating schemes in Sochi; and Vitaly Stepanov, a former employee of Russia’s anti-doping agency who married a runner for Russia’s national team and was the first to speak publicly about the nation’s institutionalized cheating.
“The world knows that hundreds of Olympic dreams have been stolen by the doping system in the country where I was born,” Stepanov wrote in an affidavit submitted to the International Olympic Committee this fall. He had suggested banning Russia’s Olympic Committee for two years, or until the nation’s anti-doping operations are recertified by regulators. Russia and its individual athletes are all but certain to miss the 2018 Paralympics given regulators’ refusal to recertify the nation last month.
“The evidence is clear, that the doping system in Russia has not yet been truly reformed,” Stepanov wrote.
Tuesday’s decision may have major consequences for another major sports event, next year’s $11 billion soccer World Cup in Russia. The nation’s deputy prime minister, Vitaly Mutko, was Russia’s top sports official during the 2014 Sochi Games and was directly implicated by Rodchenkov.