02222018

No flags, but the third biggest team: When is a Russian not a Russian?

Winter Olympics

The 169 ‘Olympic athletes from Russia’ will be the third biggest group competing at Pyeongchang

What was the point of banning Russia from the Winter Olympics when 169 of their athletes are still being allowed to compete as neutrals?

Despite International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach’s condemnation of Russia’s “unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympics”, the neutral competitors cleared to take part will be the third biggest group at the Games in Pyeongchang – behind only Canada and the United States.

And on Thursday a court overturned lifetime Olympic bans on 28 Russian competitors.

So how did we get here? What exactly will this Russian team look like? And what about the future fight against doping?

Will they be bigger than other countries?

The biggest team will be the United States – they will have 242 athletes competing, while Canada has a team of 225.

Germany, predicted to finish top of the medal table, have named a squad of 153 athletes – 16 fewer than the Russian contingent – host nation South Korea will have 146, and Great Britain 59 – its largest ever team for a Winter Olympics.

There were 232 Russians competing at Sochi, when the host nation topped the medal table. Since then, 13 of those Russian medals – including four golds – have been stripped from the athletes because of doping.

However, Thursday’s Court of Arbitration for Sport decision to overturn doping bans given to 28 Russian athletes means these may end up being given back – and Russia could once again sit top of the 2014 standings. Confused? So is the IOC. But more on that later…

How will we recognise them?

The Russian athletes who have been cleared to compete as neutrals will be known as ‘Olympic athletes from Russia’.

The IOC has proposed a design for the logo these athletes will wear – and has specified that “no national identification design elements should be featured on the uniforms”.

Olympic athlete from Russia logo<!–

The proposed design ‘Olympic athletes from Russia’ will wear on their kit

They will compete under the Olympic flag, and the Olympic anthem will be played at any medal ceremonies they are involved in. So, no Russian flag and no Russian anthem.

The athletes are also expected to “refrain from any public form of publicity, activity and communication associated with the national flag, anthem, emblem and symbols” at any Olympic site.

This includes a ban on sharing or posting any such images or messages on social media.

However, the IOC has said there will be one exception to this – athletes will be allowed to display the Russian flag in their bedrooms, so long as it is not publicly visible.

Will they win more medals than most teams?

Before the final list of 169 athletes was confirmed in January, Sports data analyst Gracenote was predicting 18 medals for the Olympic Athletes from Russia – including five golds.

That was expected to be enough for 10th place in the medal table, but Gracenote now thinks they will win eight – three golds, three silver and two bronze.

That’s because several athletes who it expected to win medals were not given clearance to compete by the IOC.

Denis Yuskov and Pavel Kulzihnikov were fancied to perform well in the speed skating, cross country skier Sergey Ustiugov is absent, and speed skater Olga Graf is boycotting the Games.

Graf won two bronze medals at Sochi but rejected an IOC invitation to compete in South Korea, because “sport has become a bargaining chip in dirty political games”.

The revised predicted total of eight medals would be enough for 14th in the rankings, seven places above Great Britain.

Gracenote is forecasting five medals for Britain – two silver and three bronze – and Germany are expected to finish top of the table on 40 medals, including 14 golds.

The Olympic athletes from Russia do not feature in the latest Gracenote virtual table

Gracenote’s predictions are likely to be updated on Wednesday, 7 February.

Who are the big names in the team?

Two big Russian figure skating names – two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva and defending European champion Alina Zagitova – have been included.

The NHL is not allowing its players to take part in the Games, but Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk are two well-known players on the men’s ice hockey team with NHL experience.

Roman Repilov and Semen Pavlichenko have been among the top luge performers this season, while Victor Wild is another big hope – the American-born snowboarder switched nationality in 2011 and won two gold medals in Sochi.

So what’s the point of the ban?

BBC Sport’s Alex Capstick

When Thomas Bach informed a packed news conference in Lausanne last month that Russia was now banned from the Olympics there was, for a few minutes at least, an acknowledgement that the IOC had at long last done the right thing. Its previous resistance to crack down on mighty Russia had been broken.

But then it slowly dawned on us that the ultimate sanction was not quite what it seemed.

Bach said he had no desire to humiliate Russia, that a balance needed to be struck. Clean athletes, vetted by yet another committee, would be welcome. But 169 from a country which has been found guilty of implementing a widespread doping racket, a country which has cheated its way to Olympic success, a country which remains largely in denial, will for many observers be hard to swallow.

They will form one of the largest contingents when they march at the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang. They’re supposed to be neutral but will be known as ‘Olympic athletes from Russia’.

And if they behave themselves during the Games, the suspension will be lifted in time for the closing ceremony. No such concessions were made for Kuwait, which was barred from Rio 2016 for the much lesser crime of government interference in the nation’s Olympic affairs.

Russia, though, is a special case. As a big rich sporting power its influence in the Olympic movement should not be underestimated.

And why should athletes who can prove they play by the rules not be allowed to take part in the biggest sporting event of their lives? The IOC found a compromise, and even though the Russians have complained at the exclusion of some of their top athletes, it has been accepted.

Many people will deplore the way this has played out, they will feel that Russia has been let off lightly, even though its athletes must adhere to a strict set of regulations governing their behaviour during the Games.

And you have to ask, faced with punishing the likes of Kenya, Morocco or Belarus, all countries with a poor doping record, would the IOC have acted differently?

Why is Russia banned?

The IOC banned Russia over evidence it ran a systemic, state-sponsored doping programme during the Winter Olympics it hosted in Sochi in 2014.

For the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, individual sporting governing bodies had to decide whether Russians could compete.

This time, the IOC did impose a ‘blanket ban’ on Russian athletes – but it also said those who proved they were clean would be allowed to compete as neutrals.

Russia is also banned from the 2018 Winter Paralympics but, again, some athletes will compete as neutrals.

The International Paralympic Committee says it expects 30 to 35 neutrals who meet “strict criteria” to take part in five of the six events – alpine skiing, biathlon, cross country skiing, snowboard and wheelchair curling.

What’s next?

As we’ve touched on above, the IOC was criticised for not acting sooner with its punishment of Russia – and it has also been criticised for not going far enough now it finally has acted.

Furthermore, on Thursday the lifetime Olympic bans it imposed on 28 athletes from the country were overturned.

That decision will “forever stand as the low point in sports integrity”, said the lawyer for ex-Russian anti-doping official and whistleblower Dr Grigory Rodchenkov, whose testimony has been key to proving institutional and targeted doping took place in Russia.

The IOC itself said the ruling “may have a serious impact on the future fight against doping”. It is considering an appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal.

So we haven’t heard the last of this.

There will be plenty more said by Russia’s sporting leaders, who will continue to portray evidence of the doping scandal as a western conspiracy.

There will be more athletes who will feel cheated. British International Olympic Committee member Adam Pengilly said he spent Thursday “apologising to individual athletes who have had dreams, medals, money and most importantly, faith in sport, stolen from them”.

And there will be more questions for the IOC to answer. US Anti-Doping Agency chief Travis Tygart accused them of creating “a sorry mess”.

“The nightmare continues for clean athletes,” he added. “This must change.”

What Next?

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