No National Anthem or Flag: Why Russian Athletes Will Remain ‘Neutral’ at World Championships

New York Times

A panel investigating Russian doping in track and field is unlikely to finish its work in time for Russian athletes to compete under the country’s flag at the world championships, which begin in less than two weeks in Qatar, according to a person familiar with the situation.

The person was not authorized to speak publicly, but another championship without the Russian flag or anthem would be the latest embarrassment for the international sports power as it tries to regain its prominence after revelations in 2015 of a widespread, state-sponsored, performance-enhancing drug program.

The special panel of the International Association of Athletics Federations that has been dealing with the years-long fallout from the unmasking of Russia’s institutional doping program will meet days before the start of the world championships later this month. The panel, which could still change its mind, has rejected Russia’s efforts to regain full status for its track and field federation 11 times.

If plans hold for a 12th rejection, then, for the second time in three years, Russian athletes at the world championships will be allowed to participate only under the cumbersome banner “Authorized Neutral Athlete,” a special designation for what are expected to be dozens of individuals cleared by the IAAF. As in 2017, they would compete without their nation’s flag and would not hear Russia’s anthem should they win a gold medal.

Officials with Russia’s athletics federation were not immediately available for comment.

Track and field has taken the hardest line against Russia, in part because its reputation was among the most tarnished by an industrial level cheating program unparalleled in its sophistication and scope. Lamine Diack, a former IAAF president, will stand trial in January in France after being charged with corruption in a case that includes accusations that he and other top ranking officials were bribed to cover up failed drug tests.

Russia’s athletics federation has met most of the requirements demanded of it by a task force led by the Norwegian anti-doping expert Rune Andersen. But the World Anti-Doping Agency is unlikely to complete its analysis of laboratory data Russia provided to the IAAF this year, according to the person familiar with the matter. The data is expected to yield details of athletes suspected of doping.

A spokeswoman for the IAAF confirmed the panel would meet, but declined to comment on the pending decision.

After the group’s last meeting, in June, Andersen said Russia had made some progress and paid more than $3.2 million to cover the task force’s costs. But, he said, he remained concerned about reports that barred coaches and doctors continue to work with elite Russian athletes. He added that Russia could not be reinstated while there was a separate case by the IAAF’s Athlete Integrity Unit investigating accusations that Russian track federation officials were involved in covering up the high jumper Danil Lysenko’s failed test.

“Perhaps it will require an intervention from President Putin himself to help them get the message that things must change,” Andersen said.

Figures in Russia sports have been promoting the country’s return to the fold. One, pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, a vocal advocate for Russia’s programs in its four-year existence as a sports pariah, missed out on a chance to secure her third Olympic gold medal because the track athletes were prohibited from competing at the 2016 Rio Games.

“Everything that needs to be done, has been done, from our side,” she said in comments published last weekend. “We hope our athletes will be free to compete under the Russian flag and there will not be any more collective responsibility for violation of anti-doping rules.”

Still, not all Russian athletes share Isinbayeva’s suggestion that Russia’s sporting bodies have sufficiently changed. After the IAAF last extended the ban in June, two-time high jump world champion Mariya Lasitskene said there were coaches who “are still sure that you can’t win without doping.” She suggested the culture at the top of the Russian athletics federation stubbornly remained much as it was.

Russian officials continue to deny what several reports have now concluded: that the scheme was a state-sponsored doping program that was known to figures at the highest levels of government. To avoid prolonging WADA’s suspension and being excluded from the 2018 Olympics, Russia’s sports officials acknowledged the findings of an IOC-backed investigation that removed any references to the participation of the FSB, Russia’s security agency.

Russia agreed to turn over the laboratory data last year in exchange for gaining access for its athletes to major international sports competitions. International athletes widely condemned the deal, but anti-doping officials said they needed the data to identify scores of suspected cheats.

Tariq Panja c.2019 The New York Times Company