Russian President Vladimir Putin will not boycott next year’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Putin on Wednesday said his government would allow Russians to compete as neutral athletes at the upcoming Games in South Korea.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has banned the Russian team as punishment for doping violations at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
However, the committee plans to invite individual Russians to compete under the Olympic flag.
“Without any doubt we will not declare any kind of blockade,” Putin said in televised remarks after launching his re-election campaign at an automobile factory. “We will not block our Olympians from taking part, if any of them wish to take part as individuals.”
“They have been preparing for these competitions for their whole careers, and for them it’s very important,” he added.
A Russian boycott would have been the biggest at any Olympics since the Soviet Union and its allies missed the 1984 Los Angeles Games in response to the US-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics four years earlier.
Russia still does not accept accusations that it ran a state-backed doping system at the Sochi Olympics, Putin said, calling the IOC ruling “politically motivated” and unfair “collective punishment.”
An IOC commission chaired by former Swiss president Samuel Schmid on Tuesday ruled that there was a doping system, but said it found no evidence that “the highest state authority” knew.
However, of Yuri Nagornykh, the Russian deputy minister of sport at the time of the Sochi Games, it said: “It is impossible to conclude that he was not aware” of doping cover-ups.
Russian athletes, coaches and politicians have lined up to condemn the IOC ruling, but most have said it is better to accept it and compete.
Russian IOC member Yelena Isinbayeva, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the pole vault, came out against a boycott.
“I would like to tell all Russian athletes preparing for the Olympics in Pyeongchang not to get disappointed in any case and definitely not to do anything stupid like a boycott,” Isinbayeva told state TV. “It’s clearly not worth it.”
She said the committee’s choice of “Olympic Athletes from Russia” as the official designation, instead of a more neutral tag, decided the issue for her.
IOC president Thomas Bach later on Wednesday said that allowing the country’s name to remain “was not a compromise, it was just reflecting reality” that it would be Russian athletes taking part.
Bach said he had not spoken with Putin since the sanctions were announced, and suggested Russian athletes and sports leaders would meet to discuss competing in Pyeongchang.
They could “represent a new generation of clean Russian athletes in the Games and build a bridge into a clean future of Russian sport, for which they can then become ambassadors,” Bach said.
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.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said blaming officials was not a priority and that “protecting the interests of our athletes” was more important.
Under particular pressure is Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko. He was minister of sport during the 2014 Sochi Olympics, when the IOC ruled drug test samples were tampered with as part of a doping scheme.
Mutko is now in charge of the country’s preparations for next year’s soccer World Cup.
He was barred from the Olympics for life by the IOC on Tuesday.
Also on Wednesday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport said it has registered appeals by 22 Russian athletes against their disqualifications from the 2014 Sochi Olympics for doping.
It said the athletes have requested verdicts before the Pyeongchang Games open on Feb. 9.
The appeals relate to earlier bans against individual athletes, not the ruling on the Russian team.
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