PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Russia’s absence from the Pyeongchang Olympics opening ceremony where its athletes marched as independents due to the country’s drug scandal, was a positive sign in the fight against doping, the International Olympic Committee said on Saturday.
Russia as a nation was banned from the Games and its 168 athletes who have travelled to South Korea, invited by the IOC after careful drugs screening, are competing under the Olympic flag, wearing neutral uniforms identifying them as “Olympic athletes from Russia.”
Gold medal winners will not hear Russia’s anthem but instead the Olympic one and they cannot wave Russian flags inside Olympic venues.
During Friday’s ceremony they marched wearing nondescript grey jackets and dark trousers, white hats and white scarves with no mention of Russia.
The words “Olympic athlete from Russia” were stitched on their scarves.
“I hope the message is that it has provided a path for clean athletes,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams told reporters. “Seventy five percent (of the Russian athletes in Pyeongchang) have never taken part at Games before.
“Hopefully that would be something that could take us to the future. I think it is a strong, positive message.”
Russia, a winter sports powerhouse, were found guilty of tampering with doping samples at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics to give its athletes an edge at their home Games.
The country’s sports and anti-doping establishment has been the target of several investigations that recorded systematic manipulation of doping samples, not only in Sochi, but also across many sports and more than 1,000 athletes.
The IOC in December banned Russia from the Games and stripped several off their Sochi medals. Russian athletes tried to overturn the IOC’s decision, taking their cases to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Many Russians had their appeals upheld at CAS last week but the IOC refused to invite them, saying there was enough evidence or strong suspicion to exclude them.
Another 45 athletes and coaches, who had not been named in those investigations and had no previous doping record, had their appeals to be included in the Games dismissed by CAS on Friday, hours before the opening ceremony.
The Court ruled the IOC’s refusal to invite them constituted no sanction but rather an eligibility decision.
Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; editing by Sudipto Ganguly