The International Olympic Committee was set to decide on Tuesday whether to ban Russia from the Winter Games over evidence of state-orchestrated doping, in one of the most important decisions in the Olympic movement’s history.
Just 65 days ahead of the Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, IOC president Thomas Bach and his executive board were weighing various options on Russia’s possible participation.
They include a blanket ban on all Russian competitors, a move that would trigger outrage from President Vladimir Putin’s government.
But the IOC could choose a more moderate path, where select Russians who have maintained a clean record after rigorous testing would be allowed to compete, likely under a neutral flag.
The decision, expected later on Tuesday, will come just days after the draw for the 2018 football World Cup that will be hosted by Russia and which Moscow hopes will elevates the nation’s status as a sporting superpower.
Any Russians that may ultimately be cleared to compete in Pyeongchang will have been subjected to unprecedented drug testing, the IOC’s medical and scientific director, Richard Budgett, told reporters in Lausanne.
Speaking about the IOC’s newly enhanced pre-Games testing programme, Budgett said: “Russian athletes have been tested more than any other country by a considerable margin”.
He added that IOC will likely have conducted 20,000 separate doping tests on potential 2018 competitors before the Games open, part of an effort to turn the page on an era plagued by damaging doping scandals.
– Final arguments –
The IOC has already received significant evidence that Russian athletes benefitted from a massive state-backed doping programme that involved secret agents and peaked during the 2014 Games in Sotchi.
Many of the key findings were revealed in an explosive report by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), authored by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren.
The IOC has set up two separate committees to further investigate McLaren’s findings.
One led by IOC member Denis Oswald is probing evidence against individual athletes and has already led to a raft of sanctions.
In total Russia has been stripped of 11 of its 33 medals for cheating in Sotchi, meaning it has lost its position at the top of the medals table to Norway.
A second committee led by former Swiss president Samuel Schmid is looking at the extent to which Russia’s cheating was state-supported.
Both Oswald and Schmid will brief IOC brass ahead of the final decision on 2018.
Russia will also mount a final defence, with national Olympic committee boss Alexander Zhukov and two-time world figure skating champion Evgenia Medvedeva making the final case.
But that defence may be undermined by damaging developments in the run-up to the IOC summit.
Last month, athletics’ ruling body the International Association of Athletics Federations maintained its two-year suspension of Russia imposed over doping claims.
That followed WADA’s November 16 announcement that Russia was still not compliant with international rules on drug testing.
– ‘Axis of evil’ –
Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko said the doping allegations were an attempt “to create an image of an axis of evil” against his country.
In October, Putin accused the United States of putting indirect pressure on the IOC to block Russia from the Games in South Korea.
He warned if the IOC banned Russia, it would cause “serious harm to the Olympic movement”.
“There are two options,” Putin said. “Either forcing Russia to compete under a neutral flag or not letting it go to the Olympics at all.”
“Either one is humiliation for the country,” he insisted.
Russia has traditionally been a Winter Games powerhouse, regularly medalling in hockey, figure skating and cross-country skiing, among other sports.
While its situation appears bleak, Russia may take comfort from the fact that the IOC has historically shied away from blanket bans on a single country.
In 2016, it ignored WADA’s calls to ban Russia from Rio, instead leaving the decision to individual sports bodies.
Only apartheid-era South Africa has been hit with an outright ban, that was in place from 1964 and 1988.