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Just days before the start of the Winter Olympics, Olympic chiefs basking in glory over the historic participation of North Korea were abruptly brought down to earth by a new twist in the Russian doping scandal saga.
IOC officials were stunned by the decision by sport’s top court to reverse life bans on dozens of Russians athletes and the issue is expected to hijack the agenda at a two-day IOC board meeting from Saturday, followed by a full session of IOC members over two days from Monday.
The board meeting was scheduled to be a low-key affair until the Court of Arbitration for Sport lifted life bans on 28 Russian athletes in defiance of the IOC’s own disciplinary commission.
They were among 43 Russians who had appealed against life bans imposed by the IOC after they were disqualified from the 2014 Sochi Olympics for benefitting from a system of state-backed doping put in place for the Games.
Swiss lawyer Denis Oswald chaired the disciplinary commission that banned the Russians and he will be one of 14 members of the board who will meet for what is likely to be an animated discussion on how to respond to CAS, whose decision Olympic chiefs believe could undermine the battle against doping in sport.
Jim Walden, the lawyer for doping whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov who lifted the lid on the Russian scandal, has urged the IOC to appeal the CAS ruling.
Russia’s state-sanctioned doping was revealed in an independent report by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren in 2016, which drew largely on Rodchenko’s testimony.
McLaren’s findings resulted in a ban on Russian athletes taking part in the Pyeongchang Games. Since then 169 “clean” Russian athletes have been approved to take part by a special IOC panel.
– Fever pitch –
Now Olympic chiefs must consider what to say to the 28 competitors cleared by the top sports court to take part in the Pyeongchang Games after it said there was insufficient evidence against them.
The 28, including Sochi cross-country gold medallist Alexander Legkov, are now eligible to compete in the Pyeongchang Games starting next week, but their presence in South Korea is by no means certain.
“Not being sanctioned does not automatically confer the privilege of an invitation” to the 2018 Games in South Korea, the IOC said in a statement following Thursday’s CAS appeal decision.
The executive board will also examine the presence of North Korea at the Games, their first participation in a Winter Olympics since 2010.
More importantly, the two Koreas will march into the stadium for the opening ceremony on February 9 as a unified team and the North and South Koreans will field a joint women’s ice hockey team.
In the past year tensions reached fever pitch as Pyongyang carried out a series of weapons tests — including intercontinental ballistic missiles that brought the US mainland into range, and its most powerful nuclear blast to date — while leader Kim Jong-Un and US President Donald Trump traded personal insults and threats of war.
But the Games have triggered a sudden apparent rapprochement between the two Koreas and Olympic officials are enjoying reflected glory from the diplomatic thaw.