Olympic chiefs have warned that the fight against doping has been gravely undermined just days before the Winter Games, following a controversial ruling handing dozens of Russian athletes a reprieve.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) on Thursday overturned the life bans of 28 Russians accused of doping at the last Winter Olympics in Sochi and partially upheld the appeals of 11 more.
Cas’s decision means that the 28 are theoretically free to compete in Pyeongchang, where the Games start next week, and in some cases will have medals returned. The 11 remain banned for this Winter Olympics but not from future editions.
“This may have a serious impact on the future fight against doping,” said the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
“Therefore, the IOC will analyse the reasoned decisions very carefully once they are available and consider consequences, including an appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal.”
Cas ruled that there was evidence of anti-doping rule violations for 11 athletes.
The IOC said that corroborated its findings of a systematic doping effort by Russia, but Cas said that alone was not enough to ban the other 28 athletes, for whom they said evidence was insuffucient.
Lawyers for Grigory Rodchenkov, the former Russian anti-doping co-ordinator turned whistleblower, whose evidence formed part of the case against the athletes, called the decision “a get out of jail free card”.
“The Cas decision only emboldens cheaters, makes it harder for clean athletes to win, and provides yet another ill-gotten gain for the corrupt Russian doping system generally, and [President] Putin specifically,” his lawyers added.
“Clean sport is dead. The Cas decision proves that certain countries can get away with anything and everything. Today’s decision will forever stand as the low point in sports integrity.”
A spokesman for Putin, who has admitted that some Russians doped at Sochi but repeatedly denied a centralised plot, welcomed the Cas verdict.
“We are very glad for our athletes,” said spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “The decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport proves that energetic work to stand up for our rights in court and elsewhere is justified, can be effective and should continue.”
The Russian team remains banned from Pyeongchang but more than 150 athletes from the country have been cleared to compete as neutrals.
Russian Olympic Committee chief Alexander Zhukov said: “We insisted from the very start that our athletes are not involved in any doping schemes, and, of course, we are now just happy that their honest name has been reinstated by court and all their awards have been returned to them.”