At 11th Hour, Status of Russian Olympians Remains Uncertain

Russia’s hockey team is a gold medal favorite. Its fans might get to see an even stronger team if some players win their doping appeals.

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Olympics officials first learned about Russia’s state-backed doping program — and how it had corrupted the results of several Winter and Summer Games — in May 2016. Now, only two days before the opening ceremony for the Pyeongchang Games, the eligibility of many Russian athletes remains uncertain, creating confusion and mistrust across several sports.

Forty-seven Russian athletes who were barred for violating antidoping rules have filed appeals with the sports world’s highest appeals court to gain admission to the Games, including 15 athletes and coaches who joined the case on Wednesday. The court is expected to hold a hearing on those cases on Thursday, the day preliminary competition begins at the Olympics.

Thursday afternoon, the court announced that an additional six athletes and seven coaches, doctors and support staff had filed appeals.

A final ruling on their eligibility may be made as late as Friday morning here — hours before the opening ceremony. The athletes in limbo are cross country skiers and biathletes, bobsledders and speedskaters, hockey players and figure skaters. They include Viktor Ahn, a short-track speedskater who has won six Olympic gold medals, and Anton Shipulin, a biathlon world champion.

“The timing there was not in our hands,” Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, said at a news conference Wednesday. “Studies had to be done, evidence had to be provided, fair hearings for the Russian athletes had to be offered.”

After completing its own prolonged investigations that reiterated what had been known for more than a year, the I.O.C. in December barred Russia’s Olympic committee from the Games and prohibited all insignia linked to the country. Yet in an effort to avoid punishing athletes who did not cheat, the I.O.C. later cleared more than 160 athletes it determined to be clean to participate as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”

Russia continues to deny the existence of a state-sponsored doping program.

The situation unfolding this week in South Korea is reminiscent of two years ago, when Russia also tried to use the court to restore athletes barred from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

In Rio, the I.O.C.’s leadership blamed the World Anti-Doping Agency for causing chaos by releasing the results of its investigation into Russia’s systematic doping plan so close to the start of the Games. In Pyeongchang on Wednesday, Bach blamed the Court of Arbitration for Sport for causing confusion and uncertainty last week when it upheld an appeal by 28 Russian athletes who had been barred, judging that the evidence against them was “insufficient to establish that an antidoping rule violation was committed by the athletes concerned.”

The 15 appeals filed Wednesday were on behalf of 13 athletes and 2 coaches; they contend they should be allowed to participate after the court ruled last week there was insufficient evidence to link each of them to Russia’s systematic cheating. Olympic officials have argued that because they barred Russia’s Olympic Committee, they are entitled to invite and exclude whichever Russian athletes and coaches they choose.

The turmoil sparked a war of words within the I.O.C.’s usually clubby meeting room ahead of these Games. Richard Pound of Canada, the longest-serving I.O.C. member, warned his fellow members on Tuesday that the organization was in trouble.

“I believe that in the collective mind of a significant portion of the world, and among the athletes of the world, the I.O.C. has not only failed to protect athletes, but has made it possible for cheating athletes to prevail against the clean athletes,” said Pound, the former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“We talk more than we walk,” Pound added. He said the athletes and the public “no longer have confidence that their interests are being protected. Our commitment to both is in serious doubt. With respect, I don’t think we can talk our way out of this problem.”

Pound’s intervention proved unpopular. He was berated by Argentina’s Gerardo Werthein before all but two members — Pound and Adam Pengilly of Britain — voted in support of the I.O.C’s handling of the Russian doping affair.

In his news conference after the two-day meeting, Bach said members “cleared the air” and engaged in “lively debate.”

The organizers of the Paralympics, which will take place here a few weeks after the Olympics conclude, have continued their hard-line approach to Russia. The country has been barred from next month’s Paralympics. Bach has taken a more conciliatory approach, favoring what he calls individual justice over collective punishment, despite describing Russia’s actions as an “unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympics.”

Some of the group of 15 Russians who filed appeals Thursday are already in Korea in anticipation of being permitted to compete.

This week, more than a dozen Russian reporters, photographers and cameramen flocked to the Yongpyong Ski Resort where the appeal hearings are being held. Lawyers representing both sides said very little Wednesday, leaving the court’s secretary general, Matthieu Reeb, to defend it in the face of criticism from Bach and others.

“Possibly a final decision can be rendered at the end of the day tomorrow,” Reeb said. “If we need more time, perhaps it will be Friday morning.”

Bach tried to focus attention on what many consider to be a dramatic gesture of reconciliation, the fact athletes from North and South Korea will march together in the opening ceremony and will field a joint women’s ice hockey team.

“It will be the moment, the most emotional moment,” Bach said.

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