Russia's Pavel Kulizhnikov skates in the men's 1,000 meters at a World Cup event last week in Utah.(Photo: Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)
When the International Olympic Committee announced earlier this month that Russia’s Olympic team was barred from the 2018 Winter Games for executing a longstanding state-sponsored doping program, clean athletes from around the world celebrated a punishment that fit the crime.
Finally, the IOC showed some backbone.
Finally, Russia would be held accountable for the systemic doping of many of its athletes.
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Oh, but wait.
There was that little loophole: Russian athletes with a clean history of non-doping could compete in South Korea under a neutral flag. President Vladimir Putin magnanimously said he wouldn’t stand in any athlete’s way if he or she chose to compete as a neutral Olympian.
“I’m sure the players that Putin wants over there, they’re going to wind up there somehow,” U.S. men’s hockey coach Tony Granato told me last week. “I’m going to prepare as if it’s (Pavel) Datsyuk and (Ilya) Kovalchuk and all their big boys. … I’m assuming we will still play that team.”
Does anyone think that if Russia wins the gold medal – a strong possibility – its team will be remembered as the “Neutrals?” If anything, the Russians will enjoy added notoriety because of the IOC’s supposed ban.
At a World Cup long-track speedskating meet in Salt Lake City last week, the final international competition before the Winter Games, it was business as usual for the Russians, who totaled 13 top-five finishes and won six medals. Denis Yuskov won gold in the men’s 1,500 meters with a world-record time.
“It’s definitely the elephant in the room, seeing them around,” said U.S. distance skater Emery Lehman. “It’s really weird seeing them around because some of them might be (in Pyeongchang) and some of them might not. It looks like a lot of them have the opportunity to prove their innocence.”
Pavel Kulizhnikov, who holds the world record in the men’s 500 and is a twice-suspended drug cheat, has a lot of proving to do.
In 2016, Kulizhnikov failed a doping test for meldonium, the same drug found in tennis player Maria Sharapova’s sample at the Australian Open. He faced a possible lifetime ban, but the International Skating Union lifted the ban after one month.
Previously, he’d served a two-year ban after a positive test for the stimulant methylhexamine.
If the IOC is serious about Russian drug cheats not being able to compete in the Winter Games, there is no way Kulizhnikov should get to skate in Pyeongchang. But I wouldn’t bet against it.
U.S. sprinter Mitch Whitmore of Waukesha said the Russian speedskaters weren’t on friendly terms with the rest of the international skaters
“I feel like there’s been a little tension between them and everybody else,” he said. “There always has been, at least for the last few years, because Pavel has had certain issues and everybody is aware of that.”
Last week, six Russian female hockey players were banned for life on doping abuse allegations linked to the 2014 Sochi Games, but they are appealing the IOC’s decision with the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
It would be a joke, and not a funny one, if they were allowed to compete in Korea.
So, in summary, the IOC finds a widespread culture of Russian cheating through performance-enhancing drugs and lays down the law, except the law is as ironclad as a wet paper bag.
Russian government officials are banned from attending the Games. Big deal. They’ll be holed up in their dachas, toasting their medal-winners with fine Russian vodka.
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