MOSCOW >> Russian athletes cleared to take part in the coming Winter Games questioned the selection process that allowed them to compete as neutrals and forced others to stay home while putting a veil of doping suspicion over their careers.
“I think this was a lottery,” Sofia Prosvirnova, a Russian speedskater, said today ahead of a meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. “I know very well the guys who were not allowed to go, and I know 100 percent that they were not guilty of anything.”
Last week, the International Olympic Committee published a list of 17 factors it had used to determine whether a Russian athlete was eligible to compete. Athletes who were implicated in any part of the sprawling investigation into Russian doping were not cleared to take part in the games.
Putin met with the athletes in his residence near Moscow before their departure for the Olympics, set to start next week in Pyeongchang, South Korea. He asked them to put behind thoughts about doping scandals and political intrigue and concentrate on achieving victories.
“Everything that happens around sports and around our athletes should not distract you,” Putin told the cleared Olympians. “Concentrate on sports, knowing that hundreds of thousands, millions of fans, as usual, are following you, love you and hope you will win.”
After a nominal ban of the Russian team from the games, the Olympic committee cleared 169 Russian athletes to compete as “Olympic athletes from Russia.” This is down from 232 Russian Olympians who dominated medal rankings at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. It later appeared that they did so largely because of a carefully orchestrated cheating scheme.
Putin has been denying that any doping plot existed in Sochi or that the Kremlin ran a state-sponsored doping program in recent years, dismissing the accusations as part of a broad plan to weaken Russia and punish it for its sports victories.
On Tuesday, Putin described Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of the Moscow antidoping laboratory, as a “nut job” who “should be put in prison.” After fleeing Russia, Rodchenkov claimed he was responsible for the Russian doping program and personally running the doping scheme in Sochi.
“Everything is based on the testimony of this person,” Putin said during a campaign event in Moscow. “Can you trust him? We are told he is working under the control of American special services.”
Putin is set to win re-election in March to stay in the Kremlin for a fourth term. He said earlier that the doping scandal was a plot to provoke anger among Russian sports fans and athletes ahead of the election.
Russian athletes, present at the meeting, were equally adamant about the accusations.
“I believe that what happened to our colleagues who are unable to participate in these games is a case of blatant injustice,” Alena Zavarzina, a Russian snowboarder, told the gathering. “It is not fair.”
Ilya Kovalchuk, a Russian ice hockey star, said the fact that many Russian athletes were not qualified for the Olympics puts more pressure on the hockey team.
“The Olympic Games is like a birthday party for the IOC; they invite whoever they want,” Kovalchuk said before the event. “It is weird because they did not invite leaders from other sports. We are lucky that we are going and it will be even more pressure on us.”
The IOC also ruled that Russian athletes would not be allowed to use their national flag and that the national anthem would not be played when they won. At the meeting, many Russian athletes wore shirts bearing the slogan “Russia in my Heart” under their neutral gray-and-red uniforms.
One such jersey was presented to Putin, also bearing his name and signed by the athletes.