How strict will that review panel be?
That’s the key question. In its decision on Tuesday, the Olympic committee stipulated that “athletes must have undergone all the pre-Games targeted tests” typically required of Olympians, as well as “any other testing requirements specified by the panel to ensure a level playing field.”
Exactly what those other requirements will be could have a marked difference on the overall number who compete, particularly given drug testing in Russia has been limited compared with other nations, in light of its antidoping agency’s continued suspension.
Which athletes have the biggest hurdles to clear?
Any athlete implicated in a massive database of laboratory evidence, which was recently obtained by global regulators, is likely to be automatically disqualified. That database contains the test results of multiple years of drug tests conducted in Moscow at Russia’s national antidoping laboratory. The results of those tests as entered into the global testing system can be compared to the actual test results — revealing cases in which officials mindfully misrepresented an athlete’s purity.
Russian athletes from biathlon, cross-country skiing and bobsled have been disproportionately disqualified from Sochi, and the database in question contains hundreds of hidden drug violations from those sports, according to people familiar with its contents.
Which athletes have the best chances?
Drug use was rampant among Russia’s top Olympians but not necessarily universal. In sports like figure skating, anabolic steroids can be of little value.
According to Grigory Rodchenkov — the whistle-blower who headed Russia’s antidoping lab and devised the infamous drug cocktail distributed to dozens of Olympians at the 2014 Sochi Games — figure skaters did not take his concoction of liquor and steroids. Nor did the men’s hockey team, he said.
So when the Pyeongchang Games begin, how many athletes from Russia will be there?
We don’t know. It will most likely be more than a handful but significantly fewer than the 232 the nation had at the last Winter Games. Until the final number is known it is difficult to know how much this punishment will sting.
How is this different from summer 2016?
Russia wasn’t banned from the 2016 Rio Olympics, but there was great disarray in the final weeks before the Games; officials from each sport similarly scrutinized athletes to determine if they were drug-free and could compete.
The review panel that ultimately approved athletes’ eligibility in 2016 was composed of sports officials who were members of the Olympic committee, people whom critics called conflicted for wanting to be friendly toward Russia, a huge sports power and key host of winter competitions.
This year’s panel — though its exact membership is not yet known — has been framed by the Olympic committee as more independent. It will include a person appointed by the World Anti-Doping Agency, the global regulator of drugs in sports; a person appointed by the Doping-Free Sport Unit of the Global Association of International Sports Federations; as well as a person appointed by the International Olympic Committee’s own medical and scientific director.
Has a punishment like this ever been issued before?
Not for doping. But athletes have certainly competed as neutral individuals in previous Olympics. At the 2016 Summer Games, athletes from Kuwait did so after their nation had been suspended for government interference in Olympic affairs.
So this mimics past examples of neutral athletes participating in the Olympics for themselves rather than their nations?
Not exactly. Typically, neutral athletes are identified as just that. But each approved athlete from Russia will be referred to in competition as an “Olympic athlete from Russia,” with “OAR” emblazoned on a neutral uniform, though it will not reflect any Russian emblems.
At the 2016 Rio Games, each independent athlete from Kuwait was simply identified as an Independent Olympic Athlete, with no mention of Kuwait.
What does President Vladimir V. Putin think about all this?
Though there had been speculation of a boycott, Putin on Wednesday encouraged Russia’s athletes to apply to compete as individuals.
Regulators have said that Russia must accept the evidence of the nation’s cheating before they restore the country to good standing, so swallowing this penalty could hasten a return to normalcy for Russian athletes.
Yelena Isinbayeva, a pole-vaulter from Russia who was barred from the 2016 Games and subsequently elected to the International Olympic Committee’s athletes commission, on Wednesday urged Russian athletes to focus on the “spoonfuls of honey” included in the decision.
“‘Olympic athlete from RUSSIA’ is already a positive,” she wrote on social media. “They are not neutral, they are not neutral, they are from RUSSIA, and this will be said everywhere.”