Analysis: Did Russia get off easy in Winter Games ban? Read the fine print

Russian athletes will still be allowed to compete in South Korea, provided they pass rigorous drug screening and participate as an "Olympic athlete from Russia".

NEW YORK (NEW YORK TIMES) - Despite hyperbolic language that Russia had been barred from the 2018 Winter Olympics, in truth it may have gotten off fairly lightly for undermining the previous Winter Games, which it hosted, with systematic doping.

Russian athletes will still be allowed to compete in February in South Korea if they can show they have passed rigorous drug screening protocols. And they will wear uniforms that identify them as an "Olympic Athlete From Russia" instead of as an independent athlete.

Yes, the Russian Olympic Committee has been suspended. And its athletes would not march under the Russian flag at the opening ceremony or hear the Russian anthem played if they win gold medals (they will hear the Olympic anthem).

But the punishment would have been much harsher with a prohibition of all Russian athletes.

The International Olympic Committee's (IOC) decision will be seen as more than fair in the international sports world. The committee penalised Russia for its widespread doping programme but kept the door open - perhaps widely - for athletes who could show they have been tested regularly and have not been caught using banned substances.

"The rights of the individual Russian clean athletes need to be protected," Samuel Schmid, a former president of Switzerland who led a commission that examined the elaborate Russian doping system, said at a news conference on Tuesday (Dec 5).

Some of the current top Russian athletes seem unlikely to have been involved in the doping scheme at the 2014 Winter Games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia.

Evgenia Medvedeva, a teenager who is heavily favoured to win the women's figure skating competition at the 2018 Games if she recovers from a foot injury, was only 14 at the time of the Sochi Games and did not participate in them.

"I don't want younger athletes that have nothing to do with this to be penalised," Bruno Marcotte, a prominent Canadian figure skating coach, said in a recent interview. "But I want the truth to be exposed."

Still, by permitting compliant athletes to wear Olympic uniforms identifying them as Russians at the 2018 Games, the IOC went to great lengths in an attempt to avoid any call for a boycott, which presumably would come from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A spokesman for Mr Putin, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters before Tuesday's decision that a boycott was not being considered, despite some news media reports floating the possibility.

Leonid Tygachev, the honorary president of the Russian Olympic Committee, urged the country to permit its athletes to compete at the 2018 Winter Games, telling Russian state television on Tuesday that, for athletes who did not compete in Sochi, "let them compete clean and show that we're from Russia and we're not pariahs".

Alexander Zhukov, the president of Russia's Olympic Committee, speaking to reporters in Lausanne, Switzerland, after the decision, said Russia would discuss its participation but that the IOC's willingness to identify athletes as Russians and not neutrals was "very important".

How these athletes react, and how to determine which of them would go, will ultimately help determine just how sweeping the IOC move really is.

Medvedeva, the figure skater who also travelled to Lausanne to help plead Russia's case, declined to say whether she would compete at the Games under conditions prescribed by the IOC.

"It will be discussed more and it's very early to ask questions like that," she told reporters.

The IOC said a specialised panel will screen Russian athletes seeking to compete in South Korea. The criteria include not having any previous doping violations, agreeing to undergo pre-Games testing and complying with any other testing the panel imposes.

Yet even with this panel, the IOC will face an uncomfortable truth: It is almost impossible to know whether an athlete is truly "clean" of using banned substances.

Given the sophistication of drug use, with micro-dosing techniques that go undetected, those athletes who are doping often remain one step ahead of experts policing them.

It will mean almost nothing that a particular athlete from Russia - or any other country - has passed a series of drug screenings, as we have learnt in past scandals, including those involving the cyclist Lance Armstrong and the sprinter Marion Jones.

These days, the IOC has often been reduced to embarrassing retrospection, taking medals away from athletes and rewarding them to others years after a particular Olympics ends, when urine samples are retested for prohibited substances by more sophisticated technology (there will be a ceremony in South Korea to award such medals).

Revelations about the state-sponsored East German system of the 1970s and 1980s did not deter widespread use of banned substances. Neither did a gold medal stripped from Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who tested positive for steroids after winning the 100 metres at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Nor did the discrediting of Jones, who won five medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

The IOC has been widely criticised for indifference toward doping through the years. And few experts expect the Russian scandal to be much of a deterrent, either.

"It's difficult to assume that one major punishment will stop this age-old practice from continuing," said Scott Minto, the director of the sports Master in Business programme at San Diego State University.

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