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Volume 24 No. 155

Olympics

Russia "won't boycott" the Pyeongchang Games and will allow competitors to participate "as neutral athletes" in the February event, according to James Ellingworth of the AP. Russian President Vladimir Putin said, "Without any doubt we will not declare any kind of blockade. We will not block our Olympians from taking part, if any of them wish to take part as individuals." That comes after the IOC yesterday barred the country and its sports officials from Pyeongchang as punishment for its extensive state-run doping operation around the '14 Sochi Games. Putin today said that the country "still did not accept" the doping accusations. He also "called the IOC ruling unfair 'collective punishment.'" Some Russian sports officials "have been criticized for not doing enough to prevent the ban, with senior lawmakers and sports figures calling for them to be fired." Meanwhile, state media today "dismissed the ban as part of a plot to hurt Russia" (AP, 12/6). Within minutes of the IOC's announcement yesterday, Russian state broadcaster VGTKR said it would not broadcast the Games if the Russian team is not there (Ben Fischer, Staff Writer). REUTERS reports more than 20 Russian athletes banned for life by the IOC for doping offences at Sochi are "appealing their ban." The Court of Arbitration for Sport today said that the athletes had asked it to "rule before the start" of the Pyeongchang Games on Feb. 9 (REUTERS, 12/6).

LAYING DOWN THE HAMMER: In N.Y., Ruiz & Panja in a front-page piece report the penalties the IOC handed down were "so severe they were without precedent in Olympics history." The ruling was the "final confirmation that the nation was guilty of executing an extensive state-backed doping program." The scheme was "rivaled perhaps only by the notorious program conducted by East Germany." In barring Russia’s team, IOC officials "left the door open for some Russian athletes" to compete. Ruiz & Panja note those with "histories of rigorous drug testing may petition for permission to compete in neutral uniforms." Although it is "unknown exactly how many will clear that bar, it is certain that the contingent from Russia will be depleted significantly." Olympics officials said that they "might lift the ban on Russia in time" for the Closing Ceremony, suggesting the nation’s flag "could make a symbolic appearance in the final hours of the Pyeongchang Games" (N.Y. TIMES, 12/6). If approved by the IOC, individual athletes will participate under a generic flag and be identified as “Olympic athletes from Russia.” This includes team sports such as hockey, bobsled and curling. While not the most severe option the IOC had at its disposal, the decision marks the first time an entire country’s Olympic leadership has been banned for doping violations. "We have never seen any such manipulation and cheating and this has caused unprecedented damage to Olympism and sport," said IOC-appointed investigator and former Switzerland President Samuel Schmid (Fischer).

WADING INTO POLITICAL TERRITORY: The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Germano, Grove & Robinson in a front-page piece report by suspending the Russian Olympic Committee, the IOC is "punishing one of its most prominent medal-winning powerhouses and stepping headfirst into political tensions between Russia and the West." The sanctions "signal the IOC is taking a stronger position against doping" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 12/6). USA TODAY's Rachel Axon in a front-page piece writes despite IOC President Thomas Bach's assertion that the decision was "not political, it would be difficult to view the designation of neutral athletes as 'Olympic Athletes from Russia' as anything but." The Russian flag and anthem "will be gone, replaced by the Olympic versions, but the country where these athletes are from will be clear." USADA CEO Travis Tygart said, "It’s obviously the first real consequence, and make no mistake, it’s significant. The Olympics is all about countries competing against each other, and to have no Russia flag, no Russia anthem, no Russia Olympic Committee there is a significant consequence that hopefully send the right message to any state looking to cheat" (USA TODAY, 12/6). Meanwhile, filmmaker Bryan Fogel, whose film "Icarus" exposed the Russian doping system, wondered if the Russian government does not “take actual responsibility for this and accept these findings as truth and come forward to the world and apologize, then why should they ever be reinstated in any Olympic Games?” ("Nightline," ABC, 12/5).

IMPACT ON HOCKEY TOURNAMENT
: In DC, Rick Maese notes the IOC's decision "casts an even darker cloud over the men’s hockey tournament." NHL players already are "barred from competing, and without Russia in the mix, it’s likely that players from the Moscow-based Kontinental Hockey League -- widely considered the world’s second-best -- won’t be allowed to compete, further watering down the competitive pool" (WASHINGTON POST, 12/6). THE HOCKEY NEWS' Ken Campbell wrote Canada has already "had to deal with the fact that the NHL has pulled out of participating" in Pyeongchang, thereby "taking away the opportunity for Canadian players playing in the best league in the world from trying to win a third straight gold medal and its fourth in five Olympic Games." If the Russians "do decide to boycott the Games, and the KHL follows suit by banning all of its players" from participating, it will have a "devastating effect on Canada’s lineup" and medal hopes. If Russia and the KHL "pull out, there will be no country hosed more badly by the NHL and the IOC than Canada" (THEHOCKEYNEWS.com, 12/5). TSN's Darren Dreger noted Team Canada GM Sean Burke "was hoping for a minimum of 10 players" currently active in the KHL to comprised his roster for Pyeongchang. TSN's Bob McKenzie reported IIHF President Rene Fasel is trying to "let this thing settle for 24 to 48 hours and see what, if anything, the Russians are going to come out with and then react to that" ("Insider Trading," TSN, 12/5).

The IOC's ban of Russia from the Pyeongchang Games has drawn plenty of reaction, and USA TODAY's Christine Brennan writes there has "never been a finer moment" in the long, "tangled history of the Olympics and performance-enhancing drugs" that what was announced yesterday. It is an "embarrassment for Russia" and every official who "helped deprive athletes from other nations who played by the rules out of the medals they deserved in Sochi, in Rio, in London" (USA TODAY, 12/6). In N.Y., Juliet Macur writes the IOC appears to be "taking this rules-breaking seriously for a change, and it shows in the way they are handling Russian athletes who want to prove their innocence and compete in Pyeongchang" (N.Y. TIMES, 12/6). A N.Y. POST editorial states that the IOC's ban was an "extraordinary move." The editorial: "Kudos ... at least they're sending Vladimir Putin the right message now" (N.Y. POST, 12/6). The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Jason Gay writes if you are an athlete out there who is "trying to compete clean, the IOC’s move must be welcome, because there has to be nothing like the frustration in dedicating your life to something -- and losing out to cheats." Doping "isn’t simply a Russian problem" but to "not punish a rogue national program (a host, no less) would have been a demoralizing declaration of defeat" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 12/6).

DEALING A BLOW: The NATIONAL POST's Scott Stinson wrote this is an "extraordinarily rare statement that is nevertheless true: the International Olympic Committee has done the right thing." The unexpected part of the IOC’s decision is that, as much as it "deals a tremendous blow to Russia, preventing it from winning medals in Pyeongchang and promising to reallocate those that it won in Sochi, it is also a massive blow to the Olympics themselves." Russia, and the former Soviet Union, have been one of the "biggest Olympic powers, both in terms of the size of their delegation and in the number of medals they typically win." Removing the country from Pyeongchang makes it an "instantly smaller Games" (NATIONAL POST, 12/5). SPORTSNET.ca's Shi Davidi wrote the IOC "delivered a targeted attack" on the system. Doping tests and sanctions "haven’t provided enough of a deterrent for those intent on cheating," so it is reasonable to wonder if yesterday's decision, "harsh as it is, will be enough" (SPORTSNET.ca, 12/5).

NOT SO FAST: In N.Y., Jere Longman writes Russia may have "gotten off fairly lightly for undermining" the Sochi Games. The punishment would have been "much harsher with a prohibition of all Russian athletes." The IOC's decision "will be seen as more than fair in the international sports world," as some of the current top Russian athletes "seem unlikely to have been involved in the doping scheme" at Sochi (N.Y. TIMES 12/6). SI.com's Tim Layden wrote it is "exceedingly tempting to celebrate this ban of the Big Bad Russians as a watershed moment in the interminable war against doping." It is "inarguably a victory in the doping wars, but it is just one victory and could be less significant than it appears." Russian athletes will compete in Pyeongchang, but the most effective statement would have been a "full ban of all Russian athletes." The presence of any Russian athletes in Pyeongchang "diminishes the jarring effect" of yesterday’s ban. It is a "half-measure." A full ban would have "sent a much more chilling message" (SI.com, 12/5). The GLOBE & MAIL's Cathal Kelly in a front-page piecewrites, "This ban is not actually a ban. ... It's more of a timeout. The plutocrats who rule Russia stand in the corner, their athletes compete in make-believe uniforms and then everyone rejoins the class" (GLOBE & MAIL, 12/6). In DC, Sally Jenkins writes the IOC "deserves no great congratulations for what can only be termed its moral entrepreneurship in sanctioning Russia." The IOC and WADA remain a "harrumphing, selectively enforcing, self-dealing intentional failure of a bureaucracy that couldn’t even plug a mouse-hole in the Sochi drug testing lab, for the simple reason that it didn’t want to." All the IOC has really done is "ban a song and a swathe of fabric from PyeongChang, and unfairly stigmatize Russian athletes along the way" (WASHINGTON POST, 12/6).

WHO'S REALLY TO BLAME? In San Diego, Mark Zeigler writes the IOC sanctioned Russia because it "couldn’t exactly sanction itself." Russia also proved to be an "easy target." The IOC and President Thomas Bach spent yesterday "chastising Russia, banning its flag and its Olympic officials" from Pyeongchang, when really what they were doing was "incriminating themselves." Zeigler: "Blame Russia for Sochi. But blame the IOC and the international sports community for everything that came before it, for blithely ignoring the scourge of doping until it was too late, for creating a culture where athletes and sometimes entire nations feel compelled to cheat." Russia "created the mouse hole." The IOC "created the loopholes" (SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE, 12/6).

LATE-NIGHT LAUGHS: Russia's ban predictably was a topic in the late-night shows' monologues, with TBS' Conan O'Brien saying, "Don’t feel bad, Russia. Even though you won’t win any Gold Medals, you did win the U.S. presidential election” (“Conan,” TBS, 12/5). NBC’s Jimmy Fallon noted the IOC has banned Russia "because of doping violations." Fallon: "Or as Putin put it, ‘Hello, Donald, it's time to return favor.’" He added, "Athletes from Russia can still participate, but they won't get credit for winning any medals. Yeah, Olympic events that don't matter. Or as most people call it, curling” ("The Tonight Show," NBC, 12/5). CBS' Stephen Colbert: "That is shocking -- Russia was punished for interfering with the results of something?" He added, "Any athletes who can prove they never doped will be allowed to compete as individuals wearing a neutral uniform, but the official record books will forever show that Russia won zero medals. Well, what happens if one of the nationless athletes wins Gold? Do they just stand on the podium staring at nothing while we listen to two-and-a-half minutes of whatever's on the radio? I hope so, because I would love to see a speedskater tear up to ‘My Sharona’” (“The Late Show,” CBS, 12/5).

Slow ticket sales that have "concerned" the IOC and the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee have "picked up in recent weeks," according to Rachel Axon of USA TODAY. IOC Olympic Games Exec Dir Christophe Dubi said that ticket sales for the Pyeongchang Games have "tripled since the torch relay arrived in South Korea at the end of October." He added that total sales have "reached 55%." Dubi: "They’ve always said there would be a boom and a last-minute surge of sales." Dubi said that the IOC and POCOG "hope to get to 90% of tickets sold at the start of the Games." Meanwhile, Axon notes Pyeongchang's security situation "remains unchanged despite continued missile tests by North Korea and sustained rhetoric between" Kim Jong Un and President Trump. Dubi said that security concerns were "not discussed during the executive board’s morning session" (USATODAY.com, 12/6).