Vladimir Putin, fresh on the heels of the widely anticipated announcement that he'll seek a fourth term as president, said that Russia won't stop its athletes from competing under a neutral flag at the 2018 Winter Olympics after the national team was banned from the Games.
"Without any doubt, we won't put up any barrier and won't prevent our athletes from participating if they want to compete as individuals," Putin said Wednesday in Nizhny Novgorod. Many of the athletes "have prepared all their lives for this competition," and officials will have to study the details of the International Olympic Committee's decision on Russia, he said.
The IOC ruled on Tuesday that there'd been "systemic manipulation of the anti-doping system in Russia," in what President Thomas Bach called "an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic Games." It suspended the Russian Olympic Committee and banned the national team from the February 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The IOC said only individual athletes who've never violated anti-doping rules will be allowed to compete and without the Russian flag or national anthem.
The ban is part of "an effort to force Russia out of major sport" using "unfounded accusations," Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters in Moscow. The U.S. is trying to put pressure on international sporting bodies "which has nothing in common with the ideology of the Olympic movement," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, the Tass news service reported.
While the Kremlin denies the existence of any state-run doping program, Putin appeared to soften criticism of the investigation. Russia's "partly to blame" for the situation it's in, though the Olympic ruling was still "politically motivated," he said, according to the Interfax news service.
Some Russian politicians have called for a boycott of the Winter Games, though many athletes said it should be left to individual competitors to decide whether to take part. The IOC will only allow them to participate under the Olympic flag with the title "Olympic Athlete from Russia."
It's acceptable for Russian athletes to compete under the IOC's terms, two-time gold medalist pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva said, according to Interfax.
Putin, who often uses Russia's Olympic tradition as an example of the country's greatness and showers medalists with luxury cars and cash, had earlier said that competing under a flag other than Russia's would be "humiliating." He suggested that the U.S. is using the issue as a means to influence the Russian presidential election in March.
The IOC's ruling is the culmination of a three-year investigation into state-sponsored doping before and during the 2014 Winter Olympics hosted by Russia in Sochi. An independent commission led by Richard McLaren, a Canadian law professor, concluded last year that Russia obscured positive dope-test results involving about 1,000 athletes from 2011-2015.
Russia set up the program after it finished in 11th place with just three gold medals at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, the team's worst performance since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the commission found.
The Russian team has been stripped of 11 of the 33 medals it won at the $50 billion Sochi Games, the most expensive in history, because of doping violations, knocking it from first to fifth place in the overall medals ranking.
Alexander Zhukov, the president of the Russian Olympic Committee, who was suspended by the IOC, apologized at Tuesday's hearing "for violations of anti-doping rules that were allowed in our country." The new generation of Russian athletes shouldn't be held responsible or "made to feel like outcasts" at the Olympics "without a national identity, anthem or flag," he said.
"Every Russian athlete should decide on his own whether to go under a neutral flag," Alexander Zubkov, who competed in four Olympics and carried the Russian flag at Sochi's opening ceremony, told Championat.com. The IOC last month stripped Zubkov of two bobsleigh gold medals he won in Sochi after finding he broke anti-doping rules, a decision he's appealing.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters it's too soon to discuss the fate of Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, who was banned by the IOC from all future Olympics after being implicated in the doping scandal as sports minister during the Sochi Games. Mutko, who denies involvement and was promoted by Putin after the scandal emerged, is now in charge of organizing next year's FIFA soccer World Cup in Russia.