Russia could be reinstated hours ahead of Pyeongchang closing ceremony

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Russia could be reinstated hours ahead of Pyeongchang closing ceremony

With the 2018 Winter Olympics closing ceremony set for Sunday in Pyeongchang, one wonders if somewhere nearby there aren't boxes of new Russian uniforms waiting to be opened, each stamped with RUSSIA and in the country's full colours, along with Russian flags waiting to be unfurled.

The Russian National Olympic Committee is officially suspended from these Games, a penalty for a state-sponsored doping scheme that helped propel Russia to No. 1 in medals in Sochi.

But here in Pyeongchang, 169 Russians are competing under the banner Olympic Athletes from Russia, or OAR, and they've won at least 14 medals ostensibly as neutral athletes but obviously for Russia. The ban announced by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on Dec. 5 has been described as something of a fudge from the start.

In punishing the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), the IOC also set out terms for reinstatement to the Olympic movement, including rules for good behaviour, adherence to anti-doping and a $15-million US fine.

In return for meeting the "letter and spirit' of those conditions, the IOC spelled out that it "may partially or fully lift the suspension of the ROC from the commencement of the closing ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games Pyeongchang 2018."

On Saturday, the IOC executive board meets to hear the findings of a panel investigating the OAR conduct during these Games.

The board will then make a final ruling, perhaps hours before the closing ceremony. And possibly, athletes may abandon their neutral grey OAR uniforms for something more familiar: the white, blue and red of the Russian federation.

This week, especially with news of two Russian doping cases, the question of whether Russia will be reinstated at the closing ceremony has been a persistent undercurrent at the Games.

On Friday, Russian bobsled athlete Nadezhda Sergeeva failed a doping test for the banned drug Trimetazidin. She had competed Wednesday at the Olympics, finishing 12th.

Earlier in the week, mixed doubles curler Alexander Krushelnitsky tested positive for meldonium after his bronze medal win with his wife. At first there were protestations and suggestions that someone spiked his drinks while training in Japan.

But ultimately, the OAR delegation apologized, accepted responsibility, swore allegiance to the zero tolerance approach to doping and dropped any challenge to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. A higher purpose seemed at stake.

Dick Pound, the longest serving member of the IOC, told the CBC in January: "It simply looks as if, when you're dealing with the IOC, if you deny deny deny, and you happen to be a big country, just keep denying, because they'll find a way to let the athletes from your country participate."

He's been equally outspoken here in Pyeongchang. Recent comments to a British newspaper that described his IOC colleagues as "old farts" missed the mark: Pound has left Pyeongchang with several IOC members filing complaints against him.

Pound never intended to stay through to the closing ceremony. Concerned that the punishment against Russia was tailor-made to ensure reinstatement at these Olympics, Canada's ranking IOC member made it clear in a January letter to IOC president Thomas Bach that he wouldn't be present for any sort of coming-out party at the closing ceremony.

Critics say Pound may have booked his flights to and from Pyeongchang before he wrote that letter, but others are standing by him, inspired by his tenacity to push the IOC to serve up severe consequences for doping and his tenacity to ensure clean sport at the Olympics.

Canadian luge silver medalist Sam Edney is among those athletes who are making noise about Russia's possible reinstatement. Tweeting about a meeting with Pound, whom he calls the "clean sport crusader," Edney says he's proud to add his voice to the conversation.

A bit of background here: Edney and his luge relay teammates came fourth at the Sochi Olympics four years ago. But last December, the second-place Russian team was banned for life by the IOC after being implicated in the Sochi scheme.

A medal upgrade appeared set to go to the Canadians, but on appeal the CAS ruled in favour of the Russians, and the disqualification was overturned.

So Edney, Alex Gough, Tristan Walker and Justin Snith had a bit of a point to prove in Pyeongchang.

And they did.

Canada's luge relay team won silver, Edney later conceding to CBC, that perhaps their podium moment in Pyeongchang would never have been possible without the disappointment after Sochi.

"This trumps that feeling for sure. We as a team, four years ago, that motivated us and without four years ago, who knows if we'd be here today."

"To be there last night and experience that with my team and my country, my family and my friends, it was an amazing moment for our program and for Canada. It's something we can always be extremely proud of. That's a moment we'll have forever, and no one is taking that away."

Still the events of the past four years, the revelations about Russia, the bans, the appeals, the overturning of disqualifications have motivated Edney to speak out.

Mind their behaviour

He can, freed by the fact this is his last Olympics and he won't run the risk of being punished for being "too political."

Under what's known as "Rule 50," athletes are constantly reminded during the Games to mind their behaviour and avoid politics when they step onto a podium or walk in the opening or closing ceremonies.

President of the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) Tricia Smith on Saturday said it is up to Canadian athletes individually whether to boycott the closing ceremony, should Russia be reinstated.

But she said "we've assured our athletes the fight against doping is being taken seriously; this is their Games, they shouldn't let this ruin their Games."

Smith, also a member of the IOC, said especially in light of the second doping offence at Pyeongchang involving OAR, "our position Is that the (Russian) flag should not come into the closing ceremony with the Russian team."

The day after the luge team won silver, Edney was asked whether Russia should be allowed to march into Sunday's closing with the Russian flag and in full Russian uniform.

"I feel like it's too soon for that. What kind of message does that send?" he said.

"I feel there should be more demand for them to prove that things are changing. I mean I'm happy that those who are clean athletes are representing Russia. I'm happy they're here, and proud they can race against me and my fellow Olympic athletes. But I also feel they need to prove that things are going to change in their country."

Those remarks were before the Russian curler tested positive, well before the Russian bobsledder failed a doping test too.

Edney and some other athletes are now considering whether or how to make their objections known if Russia is fully or partially reinstated before the closing ceremony.

"Change … doesn't happen in a matter of two weeks," says Edney.