Russia’s track and field team is barred from competing in this summer’s Rio de Janeiro Games because of a far-reaching doping conspiracy, an extraordinary punishment without precedent in Olympics history.
The global governing body for track and field, known as the IAAF, announced the decision Friday, ruling in a unanimous vote that Russia had not done enough to restore global confidence in the integrity of its athletes.
Russia won 18 medals in track and field — including eight golds — at the last Summer Olympics. But when the Rio Games begin Aug. 5, no track and field athletes will compete under the Russian flag. Not even East Germany, which conducted the most notorious doping system in sports history through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, faced such a penalty.
“Politics was not playing a part in that room today,” said Sebastian Coe, head of the track and field organization. “It was unambiguous.”
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The case against Russia expanded dramatically over the last seven months. Reports by the World Anti-Doping Agency and news organizations have detailed a state-run doping scheme that punctured the integrity of the Olympics, seemingly upending many of the results from the 2008 Beijing Games, the 2012 London Games and the 2014 Sochi Games.
The allegations were wide-ranging and detailed: Athletes were given a three-drug cocktail of banned substances and liquor; authorities helped athletes evade drug tests by surreptitiously swapping out tainted urine; thousands of incriminating samples were destroyed; drug testers were threatened by members of Russia’s Federal Security Service.
But perhaps the most influential force in the track organization’s decision was the outcry from athletes outside Russia. A groundswell of Olympians across sports agitated for penalties after the World Anti-Doping Agency had been slow to respond.
“Athletes have been losing sleep,” said Lauryn Williams, a track and field and bobsled athlete from the United States. “You can’t have faith in anybody who is Russian.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday he hoped for “some solution” after the IAAF announced its decision. Speaking to a meeting of leaders of major international news agencies, Putin said “clean athletes shouldn’t suffer.”
Putin compared the ban for the entire team to a prison sentence that “an entire family” could get if one of its relatives has committed a crime.
The Russian ministry of sport said in a statement Friday that it was disappointed in the ruling. “We now appeal to the members of the International Olympic Committee to not only consider the impact that our athletes’ exclusion will have on their dreams and the people of Russia, but also that the Olympics themselves will be diminished by their absence,” the ministry said.
The International Olympic Committee, the ultimate authority over the games, is scheduled to discuss the decision Tuesday. If Olympics officials were to amend the ruling against Russia, it would be an unusual move, as they have historically deferred to the governing bodies for specific sports.
Russian track and field athletes have been suspended from international competition since last fall, after the publication of a report by the World Anti-Doping Agency that accused the nation of an elaborate government-run doping program. Though Russia denied those accusations, the country’s track and field authorities did not contest the suspension when given an opportunity in November.
Since then, however, Russian officials have striven to persuade global decision-makers that they could be trusted in coming Olympic competitions, volunteering to go beyond standard eligibility requirements and to send only athletes who have not been disciplined for drug use.
Global track officials said on Friday that individuals who could “clearly and convincingly show they are not tainted by the Russian system” — because they have been outside the country and subject to rigorous testing — could individually petition to compete for a neutral team.
Such a policy could prove controversial. The sophistication of Russia’s operation, whistleblowers have said, has made athletes on steroids appear to be clean, be it through swapping out incriminating urine samples or imbibing drugs with liquor to minimize the period during which they can be detected.
“Two or five or 100 negative tests do not mean an athlete is clean,” Rune Andersen, chairman of the IAAF task force that is monitoring Russia, said Friday. “The crack in the door is quite narrow.”
He said that loophole had been created at the recommendation of lawyers who were mindful of possible court challenges; Russian athletes will have the opportunity to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.
“We do not believe that every Russian athlete cheated,” said Stephanie Hightower, who took part in Friday’s vote as president of USA Track & Field. “It is unfortunate and regrettable that some may pay a penalty for the serious transgressions of their federation.”
On Friday, hours before the vote, Russia’s sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, made a final appeal, releasing an open letter to the IAAF that had been sent privately on Wednesday. “Russia fully supports fighting doping,” Mutko wrote, invoking stricter penalties and independent drug testing of Russian athletes that had been conducted by authorities from Britain in recent months.
It is unclear whether the IOC can or will overturn the IAAF’s ban when it meets Tuesday. The IOC’s president, Thomas Bach, has emphasized in recent weeks “the difficult decision between collective responsibility and individual justice,” suggesting sympathy for Russian athletes with clean histories who are seeking to make it to Rio.
Still, Bach has also emphasized a “zero tolerance” policy and said that if other Russian sports organizations were proved to be ridden with state-sponsored cheating, they, too, could be kept from the Olympics.
“Time is of the essence,” Williams said.
Katie Uhlaender, a skeleton racer from the United States, said it was difficult to react to Friday’s decision given the IOC had yet to respond.
“If there are Russian athletes that can prove beyond reasonable doubt that they’re clean, let them compete,” she said. “But I literally started crying at the details of the Sochi scandal,” she said, referring to Rodchenkov’s account of having substituted out Russian athletes’ dirty urine.
“What does it even mean to ban Russia?” she said. “Is sending them to their room or putting them in a timeout going to solve the problem?”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.