If you're not an avid sports fan, one event in particular likely put the 2018 Winter Olympics on your radar long before the Opening Ceremony kicked off. In early December, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that Russia would be banned from competing in the famed international games. Though you'd assume that means Russia won't be at the 2018 Winter Olympics, that's actually not quite correct.
Though Russia as a country is banned from competing, some Russian athletes will still partake in the games. However, instead of representing Russia, they'll compete under a neutral flag as an Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR) — and, of course, they have to pass a doping test in order to compete.
These restrictions were put into place following an investigation into claims that Russia was sponsoring a doping program among its athletes during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of Russia's anti-doping laboratory during the Sochi Games, was one of the first people to formally raise concern over some Russian athletes' supposed habits.
The allegations were so serious that Rodchenkov eventually had to find refuge in the United States. According to Yahoo News Chief Investigative Correspondent Michael Isikoff, he is currently in the Federal Witness Protection Program and is afraid Russia will kill him for spilling the beans. On Dec. 27, he told NPR's Robert Siegel:
[B]ecause there are genuine concerns about threats to his life, his own lawyer has not even been able to communicate with him over the past week or so. That lawyer, Jim Walden, told me that he was recently informed by a U.S. government official that he should assume that there are Russian agents in the United States looking for Mr. Rodchenkov and that significant enhancements needed to be made in his security protections.
As you might imagine, the revelation Rodchenkov prompted is a pretty big deal. His claims that Russia was encouraging doping caught the attention of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which then formally investigated the allegations. According to the lawyer hired to investigate the veracity of Rodchenkov's claims, 1,000 Russian athletes in total took part in the doping program anywhere between 2012 and 2015. And in 2016, 271 Russian athletes took part in the Rio Olympics, despite the fact that WADA actually advised the IOC to ban Russia from those games.
Now, in 2018, the IOC feels as though it has enough evidence to instate the ban. According to Olympic.org, the investigation, led by former Swiss president Samuel Schmid, lasted over 17 months and honored due process; the subsequent document was called the Schmid Report.
The conclusions of the report, on both factual and legal aspects, confirmed the systemic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and system in Russia, through the Disappearing Positive Methodology and during the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, as well as the various levels of administrative, legal and contractual responsibility, resulting from the failure to respect the respective obligations of the various entities involved.
Still, however, the IOC understood that it would be unfair to completely bar clean athletes who have spent grueling years preparing for the international games. As IOC President Thomas Bach said, according to Olympic.org:
As an athlete myself, I feel very sorry for all the clean athletes from all NOCs who are suffering from this manipulation. Working with the IOC Athletes' Commission, we will now look for opportunities to make up for the moments they have missed on the finish line or on the podium.
So, long story short, you will see Russian athletes at the 2018 Winter Olympics — they just won't be sporting a Russia uniform or flag. In addition to that, you won't see former Russia Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko in the stands — the IOC banned him from attending the events for life.
Whether or not the IOC's ruling teaches Russia (and any other countries sponsoring doping) a lesson remains to be seen. But regardless of the fact that clean Russian athletes can still compete, Russia's reputation could pay the price.