The International Olympic Committee today announced an outright ban on the Russian delegation at the upcoming Olympic Games this February in Pyeongchang, South Korea, although athletes that are cleared of a controversial state-sponsored doping program are allowed to participate under the Olympic flag.
The ban, instituted after reports showed that the Russian government sponsored a wide-reaching doping program, which saw its nexus at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, states that no Russian officials are allowed at the Games, the Russian flag is not to be flown, or the Russian national anthem is to be played under any circumstances. Cleared athletes not previously banned for doping will be able to compete as “Olympic Athletes of Russia,” under the Olympic flag and anthem.
The ban is the first of its kind in Olympic history, which has seen many boycotts, and many countries compete under neutral flags, but never on a scale like this and for reasons like this. The Russian government has vowed that their athletes will boycott the games outright, as many consider the idea of participating neutrally without the Russian title as being tantamount to treason against the Russian nation.
While this will have a sweeping impact on all of the sports at the Pyeongchang Games, and potentially even the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the next Winter Games in 2022, and beyond, the implications for hockey are particularly interesting, both for the men and women’s tournaments:
- For the men’s team, the players are not part of the doping ban, as being part of professional drug testing as well meant that these players were not under suspicion from the 2014 Sochi Olympics. However, if Russia sends no athletes to Korea, the Russian team’s absence would leave an empty spot in the tournament, which may or may not be filled by this February.
- However, the Kontinental Hockey League, the world’s top league to plan on sending athletes to Pyeongchang (as the NHL is sitting these Olympics out), is now at an impasse, as the Russian-based league has vowed that in the case of a ban, that all KHL players, Russian or otherwise, would too be banned from participating in the Olympics. However, the KHL, which is a member association of the IIHF, would be risking their membership by sabotaging other team’s efforts, and if the KHL does manage to bar its players from going to Korea, the field will look drastically different, as the world’s top two leagues would have zero representation.
- For the women’s team, the players on the 2014 team were in fact found to be participating in the doping program, meaning that the entire team may very well be banned from the 2018 Games. If Russia does intend to send any athletes at all (to participate under the Olympic flag), the Russian team would be left to rebuild from scratch essentially, likely counting on junior players to make up their squad. If no Russian athletes participate at all in the tournament, like the men’s tournament there will now be one less team in the tournament, and whether the IIHF would replace the Russians with another national team before February is up in the air as well.
From the perspective of the International Hockey Lineal Championship, there is now the possibility that Russia could ironically stop the IHLC from making it to Pyeongchang on the men’s side, as they are participating in the Channel One Cup next week, and if they leave the tournament with the title, it would no longer be in contention for the next event, the 2018 Olympics.
This bombshell announcement will surely have ramifications to the Olympic tournament and beyond in the coming days and weeks, which we will track here. However, the game has certainly changed just three months before the Opening Ceremonies in February, and the medal tables in Pyeongchang, for hockey and otherwise, will surely look very different when the Games begin.