Athletes who lost medals because of Russia’s doping program at the Sochi Olympics gave a broad thumbs-up to the International Olympic Committee’s decision Tuesday to let Russians compete at the upcoming Pyeongchang Games — but not under their own flag.
The consensus among athletes was that the IOC struck a good balance between punishing the nation but not Russian athletes who may not have been part of the vast doping scheme.
“It sounds like a really good compromise to me,” said Stuart Benson, who raced on the British four-man bobsled team that placed fifth in Sochi, but which now hopes for the bronze medal after two Russian sleds were disqualified. When those DQs were announced in November, Benson celebrated with a macaroni cheese dinner.
“It’s a punishment for the state, the country, and they are obviously trying not to punish the athletes who haven’t done anything wrong,” he said in a phone interview moments after the IOC announced that Russian athletes who pass a series of drug tests can apply to compete as neutral athletes. If Russians win, the Russian flag won’t fly and the anthem won’t be played.
He said he expects the screening process will weed out any cheats.
“I’d be confident enough that the IOC, with all the vast knowledge they’ve got, wouldn’t put in a place a system that didn’t tick all the boxes,” he said.
Many athletes said they wouldn’t have felt comfortable had the IOC banned all Russians from the Pyeongchang Games.
“Very tough collective sanctions can lead to a huge injustice and that’s not at all the IOC’s role to do that,” said French cross-country skier Robin Duvillard. He and other members of the French team that got bronze in the men’s 4 x 10-kilometer relay in Sochi are now in line for the silver medal that was stripped in November from the Russian team.
He said overly harsh sanctions risked alienating Russians who already “feel that everyone is against them. And that is good for no one.”
“You have to be careful about not going too far,” he said.
Making Russian athletes compete as neutrals in Pyeongchang will hurt Russian authorities but spare its athletes, Duvillard added.
“It is a good punishment for the Russian state, because it’s a political setback,” he said. “We are taking away a symbol from them and recognition of their country.”
US skeleton athlete Katie Uhlaender, who was fourth in Sochi and will go to bronze with a Russian disqualified, said she feels a culture change needs to happen.
“The only way to ensure that is to hold a strong line,” she said. “Russia will deny to the end, and if a line was not drawn, I feel behind closed doors they would have made a mockery of the Olympic movement.”
John Jackson, another member of the British bobsled team in line for an upgrade to bronze, said Russia deserved the punishment because of its steadfast refusals to accept investigators’ findings that the doping scheme was state-supported.
“For me, it’s all to do with the accountability and Russia, as a nation, as a sporting governing body … has not taken accountability and ownership of the fact that this was a massive doping operation within their sporting community,” he said.
“The IOC needed to make to stand to show Russia and any other country that might be thinking about doing systematic doping that they can’t get away with it.”
Now retired Dutch speed skater Margot Boer, in line for the silver medal from the women’s 500 meters in Sochi that was stripped from Russia’s Olga Fatkulina, said the decision could help restore credibility to the IOC after it was broadly criticized for letting Russia compete under its own flag at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“They are making a point,” she said. “This a step back in the good direction.”
Speaking earlier Tuesday before the IOC announcement, she also said that a blanket ban was undesirable.
“There are some athletes who I know for sure had nothing to do with it, so I don’t want them to not be able to race,” she said. “If your brother is bad and does something wrong, the rest of the family doesn’t have to go to jail.”