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Explainer: IOC To Rule On Russia's Fate At Winter Olympics

Russian Aleksandr Legkov celebrates as he receives his gold medal for the men's cross-country 50-kilometer race at the Sochi Olympics. He has since been banned for life for doping.
Russian Aleksandr Legkov celebrates as he receives his gold medal for the men's cross-country 50-kilometer race at the Sochi Olympics. He has since been banned for life for doping.

The fate of Russia's Winter Olympic athletes is in the hands of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which will rule on December 5 whether Russia will be banned from the February Olympics in South Korea because of an alleged state-supported doping program.

Investigations and drug tests by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and testimony by several whistle-blowers has led to dozens of Russian athletes being banned for doping, as well as allegations that Russian officials ran a covert doping operation for its Olympic athletes from 2012 to 2015, peaking at the Sochi Olympics in 2014.

Russian officials deny any state involvement in the doping of athletes.

Eleven of Russia's 33 podium winners at Sochi have been stripped of their gold, silver, and bronze medals.

Eighteen-year-old Russian figure skater Yevgenia Medvedeva, the reigning world champion, will make a final plea against an Olympic ban on Russia to the IOC's executive board in Lausanne, Switzerland, on December 5. She will be joined by Russian Olympic Committee President Aleksandr Zhukov and Vitaly Smirnov, the head of Russia's anti-doping commission.

The IOC board will then confer before issuing a decision on Russia's participation in the Olympics, expected to be made later on December 5 (1830 GMT/UTC).

Here is a look at the IOC's options and the different outcomes Russian athletes could face in regard to the Pyeongchang Olympics:

How likely is it that the IOC will ban Russia's entire team from the Winter Olympics?

There is great pressure on the IOC's executive board to do so, as most anti-doping officials and many prominent national Olympic committees were highly critical of the IOC's decision last year not to ban the entire Russian team from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Instead, the IOC gave the power to ban to the international federation of each Olympic sport. The IAAF, track and field's international body, banned all Russian athletes from Rio except for one. The international weightlifting federation also banned the Russian and Bulgarian teams because of widespread failed doping tests by athletes from those countries.

"Such has been the raft of revelations...about state-sponsored doping going back to [the Winter Olympics in] Sochi seems [the IOC really has] no options but to ban the entire team completely [from South Korea]," Philip Barker, a journalist and Olympic historian who is a regular columnist at, tells RFE/RL.

Slava Malamud, a U.S.-based columnist for Moscow's Sovetsky Sport, said in a tweet that he is "still skeptical on the possibility [of a] blanket ban [on the entire Russian Winter Olympic team]."

Would such a ban by the IOC be unprecedented in Olympic history?

There have been many Olympic bans on countries before, but those were mostly for countries actions in the world wars (Germany, Austria-Hungary) or for political reasons (South Africa was banned from 1972 to 1988 because of its apartheid system). There have also been bans against countries because their international federations were deemed to be under government influence (India in 2012-14 and Kuwait more recently).

But never has an entire country been banned for doping.

"It really would be unprecedented," Barker says. "There's never really been anything like this -- not least because of the general excellence and the gold-medal-winning capacity the Russian athletes have had, particularly in winter sports."

Russia has won the ninth-most gold medals in Winter Olympic history but when the Soviet total number is added it tops Norway for the most all-time.

What are the other actions the IOC could take to penalize Russia?

The IOC could also decide, as it did before the Rio Olympics last year, to let the world sports federations determine if they want to ban Russian athletes from Pyeongchang. This would allow Russians from relatively "clean" sports -- such as figure skating or curling -- to compete while keeping out the Russian athletes from sports where there is a long track record of doping, such as cross-country skiing and other endurance sports.

"They could do as they did in Rio de Janeiro and give the final decision on each sport to the relevant international federation, which is the governing body," Barker says.

But such a decision would anger many in the Olympic and anti-doping community who have been calling for the IOC to finally get tough with Russia in light of a growing body of evidence that state officials knew about and supported a Russian doping system.

A more likely option could be for the IOC to allow Russian athletes to compete as neutral, or independent, athletes. That would mean they would not be allowed to wear Russian colors or national symbols and when they win a medal the Olympic flag and anthem would be used during the medal ceremony.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said such conditions would be "a humiliation" to Russia, suggesting his country's athletes would not agree to perform in Pyeongchang under such circumstances. At the IAAF world championships in London in August, 19 Russian track-and-field athletes did compete under such conditions.

Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on December 4 that Russia was not considering a boycott of the Winter Olympics.

"It would be unfortunate to have a boycott," Barker says. "We thought we got past all that in the 1980s and you know using it as...political leverage is something that is generally frowned upon in sport now because it does punish athletes."

Would a blanket ban on the entire Russian team be unjust to the athletes who have not ever been found to be doping?

"How you deal with athletes who are untainted by doping is always a problem [in such a situation]," Barker says, noting that figure skater Medvedeva is in a sport that has not been affected by doping.

It's likely she will ask the IOC how it could issue a blanket ban on the Russian team when it would keep someone like her -- never found to have used illegal substances and one of the top talents in her sport -- from competing in the Olympics.

"Even if there is a blanket ban [on all sports] the individual athletes...could apply to compete as independent athletes," Barker says. "In this way they would march under the Olympic flag, they wouldn't have the Russian flag or national anthem but at least they'd be able to take part. So that might be the compromise for those sports that are untainted."

What options would Russian athletes have if they are banned by the IOC?

The best option for any athlete who feels he has been unfairly sanctioned or banned from competing in international sports is to file an appeal with the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport.

If an athlete with a spotless drug-testing record appealed the ban, there is a fair possibility the court would allow such an athlete to compete in the Pyeongchang Olympics.

"Even if a national team is banned, athletes can apply to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to compete as individual athletes," Barker says. "And this sort of status has been available to them since the early [1990s]. The idea was not to punish innocent athletes for the sins of a governing body or the sins of a national government."

But Barker says many athletes may have problems in gaining a favorable decision from the court.

"The big question, of course, if you're competing in Russia where it's been demonstrably proved by the [WADA-sanctioned] McLaren investigation and other...fact-finding missions that there has been a doping culture [in Russia], how do you prove that you're innocent? That's the real problem for a lot of these athletes if they want to compete individually [as neutral athletes]," he said.