By James Ellingworth The Associated Press
MOSCOW — The Russian Olympic Committee formally gave its blessing Tuesday for the country’s athletes to compete under a neutral flag at the upcoming Pyeongchang Games.
Under International Olympic Committee sanctions announced last week in response to Russian doping at the 2014 Sochi Games, Russians will compete under the Olympic flag as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”
“The opinion of all taking part was united, and that was that our athletes need to go to South Korea, compete and win,” ROC president Alexander Zhukov said after the organization held a closed congress on Tuesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his backing last week.
Some Russians will formally be invited by the IOC to compete as individual athletes, though the ROC will submit rosters of its preferred teams.
“I think the IOC will make sure that the strongest Russian athletes get the invitations, so that, for example, our hockey team consists of the best players,” Zhukov said, adding that 200 athletes could end up competing in South Korea.
Russian athletes going to Pyeongchang still need to pass a screening from an IOC committee which will examine their history of drug testing.
Zhukov said Russia still denies operating a doping program at the 2014 Olympics and rejected any suggestion he had made a deal with the IOC to avoid harsher sanctions.
“It’s unacceptable to take away an athlete’s right to represent his country. In my view, it breaks not only the Olympic charter, but human rights,” Zhukov said. “So you really can’t talk about a deal here.
“Obviously we consider this ruling unfair, but at the same time we’re in the situation where we had to make a decision even though we consider this ruling unfair.”
The ROC’s approval, however, doesn’t mean Russia is abandoning legal challenges against the IOC sanctions, Zhukov said.
Twenty-five athletes have been banned for doping at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, all of whom have filed appeals to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. IOC rules bar Russians from Pyeongchang if they have previously served doping bans.
Russia will send a delegation to Switzerland on Friday to discuss details such as neutral uniforms and whether athletes can wear national colours.
Russia national hockey team captain Ilya Kovalchuk welcomed the ROC’s approval, saying it would calm athletes after a period of turmoil.
“Thank God it’s all behind us and we’re going to the Olympics,” Kovalchuk said.