The looming Winter Olympics may look slightly different this year. On Tuesday, Dec. 5, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that Russia is barred from the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, following an extensive investigation into Russian doping at the 2014 winter games in Sochi. The move raises the question: can Russian athletes compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics? Yes, under one very important condition: athletes must be clean.
According to The New York Times, the IOC is taking the Russian doping scandal very seriously — but they still want clean Russian athletes to be able to compete. The Times reports that athletes with "histories of rigorous drug testing" may be allowed to compete in neutral uniforms.
But even if Russian athletes are given the go-ahead by Olympic officials, they cannot compete under their flag. Instead, athletes will wear neutral uniforms and compete under the Olympic flag, and if athletes win any medals, "the official record books will forever show that Russia won zero medals."
The IOC's announcement stipulates that accepted athletes will compete under the name "Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR)."
Further, government officials may not attend. The Russian flag will not be flown at the event, and their national anthem will not be played. Additionally, the Russian Olympic Committee has been fined $15 million.
In a press conference announcing the ban — a punishment the likes of which the IOC has never before doled out — IOC Inquiry Commissioner Samuel Schmid — who was in charge of investigating Russian doping in the 2014 games — said, "We have never seen such manipulation and cheating" before, and Russia's actions have caused "unprecedented damage to Olympism and sport."
But the President of the IOC, Thomas Bach, said at the Dec. 5 press conference that he feels "very sorry for all the clean athletes" who have suffered due to Russia's doping program. Hence the ability to apply as a neutral athlete.
The severe punishments levied by the IOC are in response to a years-long investigation into an unprecedented, state-sponsored Russian doping program. The Schmid Report has "confirmed the systematic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and systems in Russia ... during the Olympics Winter Games Sochi 2014."
This report is the conclusion of accusations that Russia has systematically used illegal means to improve their athletes' performances long before the Sochi games, including a 2015 report alleging that the country "sabotaged" the 2012 games in London with its state-sponsored doping program.
The Schmid Report specifically focuses on the disturbing lengths to which Russia went to tamper with Olympic drug testing for the 2014 Sochi games.
Per the Times, IOC President Bach "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 overnight operation, a team put together by the Russian sports ministry "tampered with more than 100 urine samples to conceal evidence of top athletes’ steroid use throughout the course of competition." The "dark-of-night operation," so-called by the Times, involved some of Russia's most prominent athletes, some of whom have since had their medals vacated.
In response, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova released a statement via Facebook. In the statement (which was quoted in English by Buzzfeed), Zakharova said,
They can’t bring us down in any way. Not by world war, not by the fall of the Soviet Union, not by sanctions ... Is it painful? Very. We’re with our athletes heart and soul right now. Will we survive? Yes.
Some Russian athletes and government officials, per Newsweek, had previously threatened to boycott the games if any athletes were forced to compete as neutrals, though that doesn't seem to be much of a threat anymore. According to Reuters, Russia will appeal the IOC's decision.