Russia is a perennial powerhouse in the Winter Olympics, with its athletes routinely hauling in golds, silvers, and bronzes in the biathlon, figure skating, cross-country skiing, and in the more distant past, ice hockey.
So what happens now that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has banned the country from the upcoming games in South Korea after an investigation documented a systematic campaign of state-sponsored doping?
The decision by the IOC on December 5 to ban Russia came after an investigation by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), testimony by whistle-blowers, and retesting of samples led to dozens of Russian athletes being stripped of medals and banned for doping. Multiple reports have concluded that Russian government and security officials oversaw a covert doping operation for Olympic athletes from at least 2012 to 2015, peaking at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials have all denied any state involvement in the string of doping cases that has led to numerous bans over the past two years, and the committee’s 14-member executive board left open the door that some Russian athletes would be allowed to compete “under strict conditions.”
With less than 10 weeks to go before the opening ceremonies take place in Pyeongchang, here is what may happen next.
What does the ban mean and whom does it affect?
Under the ban, Russian officials are barred from attending the Olympics, the country’s flag won’t be displayed at the opening ceremonies on February 9, and its anthem won’t be played. No matter what happens, the official Olympic records will show Russia with a medal total of zero.
It’s less clear, though, what will happen to Russian athletes, many of whom have trained most of their lives for the chance to compete for a gold medal.
While they will not be able to compete under the Russian flag, any athlete who can show a history of drug testing outside of the tainted Russian state system and who meets standards determined by an IOC-convened panel may ask to compete under the title of “Olympic Athlete from Russia.”
"It must be proven that these athletes have not been implicated in the institutionalized scheme and have been tested as overseen by the panel," WADA President Craig Reedie said. "We are eager to collaborate with other stakeholders in this regard."
Such participants will see the Olympic flag, instead of the Russian flag, flown at all official ceremonies, including medal ceremonies, and the Olympic anthem will be played in place of the Russian national anthem.
Which sports may be most affected?
Russia is a perennial juggernaut in the Winter Olympics.
In Sochi, it had the biggest team at 232 members, or 8 percent of all participants, who competed in 15 events. It initially placed first in the international system medals table with 13 gold, 11 silver, and nine bronze, which represented 11 percent of all medals awarded. While it has since been stripped of 11 of those medals because of doping infractions, it was still expected to have one of the strongest teams in South Korea.
There are 102 events in the 2018 Winter Olympics, and Russian athletes were expected to be in the medal hunt in about one-third of those, based on recent results.
In skiing, Russian athletes were expected to contend in most of the cross-country and biathlon events. According to The New York Times, Russians have accounted for three first-place and four second-place finishes in the most recent top-level international competitions in those disciplines.
Russians were also expected to have a strong chance to stand on the podium in ice hockey, figure skating, skeleton, speed skating, and luge.
For ice hockey, the ban may have the most devastating effect. Already reeling from a decision by the National Hockey League in North America to not free up the world’s top players for the competition, ice hockey officials are now fearful that the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), arguably the second-best professional league globally, will react by canceling its planned break during the games to allow players to join their national teams for the Olympics.
Aleksandar Medvedev, a KHL board member, was quoted by TASS as saying in November that “contracted players won’t be able to go anywhere” if the IOC followed through on a Russian ban.
If the league made good on Medvedev’s words, and the International Ice Hockey Federation was not able to halt the move, most of the hockey world would be hit hard as well. Canada, Sweden, the United States, Czech Republic, and Finland, who along with Russia comprised the top six gold-medal contenders, were expected to draw heavily on players from the KHL to build their rosters in the absence of NHL stars.
What can Russia do?
Russia can appeal the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and athletes can also take the same route, according to Aleksandar Zhukov, the head of the Russian Olympic Committee.
But any appeal would be difficult as the IOC has “a great deal of discretion and control over its own rules, its own processes and the Olympic Games,” said James Bunting, a Canadian lawyer who has been involved in several cases at the CAS.
The Kremlin has vowed that the state won't prevent Russian athletes from seeking to participate in Pyeongchang.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a priority was "protecting the interests of our athletes."
Putin had said that it would be humiliating for Russia to compete without its national symbols, raising the specter of a boycott by the country.
But on December 6 the Russian president pledged, "Without any doubt, we will not declare any kind of blockade. We will not block our Olympians from taking part, if any of them wish to take part as individuals."