Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Seoul — Winter Olympics organisers said on Wednesday they would prefer if Russians competed under their own flag, but accepted as "second-best" an International Olympic Committee ruling allowing clean athletes from Russia to take part in the games as neutrals.

Russia was banned from the 2018 Winter Games on Tuesday because of a state-orchestrated doping programme, but the IOC said clean Russian athletes would be able to enter under an Olympic flag.

"We find it the second-best alternative, albeit not the best, that Russian players are at least allowed to compete individually," said Lee Hee-Bum, chief of the Pyeongchang organising committee for February’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The ban constitutes the toughest sanction ever levelled by the IOC for drug cheating while still offering Russian athletes who can prove they are clean a route to compete in Pyeongchang.

The decision caught the games organisers off guard, Lee said in a radio interview.

It also raises the prospect of Moscow boycotting the games, something organisers will be desperate to avoid as they battle low ticket sales and concern over North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests.

"We did not know that it (the punishment) would be this much," Lee said, adding there was a "heated debate" among the IOC members before reaching the decision.

Lee said that he had "unofficially" conveyed his messages to the IOC that he hoped that Russia would be able to participate "in any forms", but he respected the latest decision by the IOC.

"We accept and respect the decisions of the IOC Executive Board that Russia may compete under a neutral flag," the Pyeongchang organising committee said in a statement.

Lee said it was "premature" to worry about a potential boycott by Moscow. "It is too early to predict in advance because it is a decision to be made by Russia," Lee said.

But he vowed to make efforts to urge Moscow officials to "allow as many athletes as possible" to compete at the games.

The move by the IOC is the latest blow to the embattled organising committee, which is struggling to sell tickets as fear grows over the military threat from neighbouring North Korea.

Several nations have questioned whether it is safe to send their athletes to the games, to be held at an mountain resort just 80km south of the heavily fortified border.

The ban follows an explosive report by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) and two subsequent IOC probes have confirmed that Russian athletes took part in an elaborate drug cheating programme which peaked during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Slow reforms

Russia’s doping "culture" would take years to change, regardless of the ban from the Winter Olympics, whistle-blower Vitaly Stepanov said on Tuesday.

Stepanov, a former employee of the Russian anti-doping agency Rusada, helped expose massive doping problems in Russia in 2014 with his athlete wife Yulia Stepanova.

He welcomed the IOC decision as "fair" but expressed doubt that it would do much to change Russia’s mind-set in the short term.

"I think we are still many years away from the time when the doping culture truly changes in Russia," he said in an interview on Tuesday.

"There are many sports officials running sports in Russia in the old way. Many coaches that are still doing the same … doping athletes.

"Many athletes who believe everybody is doping and the only way to win is to dope as well.

"Those are the things that have to change and it takes a long time."

Stepanov and his wife’s evidence triggered a Wada investigation that alleged the Russian government was complicit in an elaborate scheme of institutional doping.

Moscow has consistently denied state involvement and the couple, who live in the US at an undisclosed location, have been denounced as traitors.

Wada has demanded Moscow own up to state-sponsored doping as a condition of lifting its suspension of Rusada.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to respond to the IOC decision on Wednesday.

"We’ll find out tomorrow," Stepanov said.

"If the Russian president agrees to the terms by the IOC, and they do not boycott the games, then that would mean they admit the guilt, admit the state-run doping system.

"Even if they say something different, I think to the rest of the world it would be clear that they did it. Not that it is not clear now," said Stepanov.

"You have to admit your own guilt before starting to change."

AFP and Reuters

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