By Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Russia's team for the Pyeongchang Olympics could be as formidable as previous ones even though the government says it was decimated by an International Olympic Committee (IOC) decision to bar man of its medal hopefuls.
Data compiled by Reuters suggests that, at least on paper, the team for this month's Winter Olympic Games is as strong as past ones even without notable contenders such as excluded short track speed skater Viktor Ahn, a six-time Olympic gold medalist.
The IOC banned Russia from the Games over a doping scandal. All but one of the 169 athletes that were cleared to compete are taking part in Pyeongchang as neutral Olympic Athletes from Russia.
A further 47 banned coaches and athletes, including Ahn, had appealed the IOC decision but on Friday their appeals were dismissed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
Nevertheless, fourteen of the athletes taking part are medal winners at the most recent world championships in their respective disciplines. That includes two golds, individually or in relay and team pursuits events.
The Russian team at the 2010 Vancouver Games had 179 members, according to the IOC. These athletes had won 13 world championship medals heading into those Games, including three golds. At Vancouver they came away with three gold, five silver and seven bronze medals.
"I think it's a fair comparison," said Brian Cazeneuve, who makes Olympic podium predictions for Sports Illustrated magazine.
"Given that those (the Vancouver Games) were not perceived as being very successful Olympics for them, it gives you an idea of what they will be expected to do now."
Wins at previous world championships or Olympics offer no safeguard against upsets and injuries that influence performance.
But the presence of several world championship and Olympic medalists suggests that some will end up on the podium.
The Russians competing in Pyeongchang won seven medals at the previous games in 2014 in the southern Russian city of Sochi, including four golds. The Russians who competed in Vancouver won eight medals at the 2006 Turin Olympics, including three golds.
The Reuters examination of Russia's 2018 Olympians' results did not focus on the Sochi Games, over which Russia has faced allegations of orchestrating one of the biggest doping cover up schemes in sport.
At those Games, Russia had a team of 225 athletes, according to the IOC. Given that this number is more than the country would have sent to an Olympics abroad, and home teams tend to do well, the success Russia has had at those Games cannot easily be compared to that at other Olympics.
"Home teams always tend to do a little bit better. You're still going to get more, for instance, South Korean medalists probably this time than you would another time for obvious reasons: home eating, home training, familiarity with the venues and so forth," said Cazeneuve.
Russia won 33 medals, including 13 golds, in Sochi. Then the IOC stripped Russia of 13 medals, including four golds.
CAS last week reinstated the results of 28 athletes who had appealed the IOC's decision. CAS also overturned their lifetime bans although they were still not invited to compete in Pyeongchang by the IOC.
Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed the ruling.
"It confirms our position on the fact that the vast majority of our athletes are clean," he told reporters on Feb 1.
Putin added that Russia still needed to continue its fight against doping along with the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Russia has vehemently denied the existence of a state-sponsored doping program in the country, as revealed in WADA-commissioned reports.
Reuters also excluded hockey and curling from the calculation. The comparison in team sports is less exact because some members might have won medals in previous competitions but others may not.
The IOC banned Russia over what it called the "systematic manipulation" of the anti-doping testing system at the 2014 Sochi Games.
It left the door open for athletes without a history of doping to compete at its invitation without the Russian tricolor, national emblems or anthem. Last month it released a list of 17 factors that were used to determine which Russians would be invited to the Games.
The selection of some and the exclusion of others has left athletes and some international sports bodies baffled as to how the IOC compiled the list.
Speaking to reporters last month, short track speed skater Sofia Prosvirnova said the invitation process had been "a lottery" while former National Hockey League (NHL) player Ilya Kovalchuk said the exclusion of some athletes had been "completely unfair."
International sports organizations say the IOC selection criteria should have been made public sooner than they were.
"The disappointment for us is that it is not transparent," Graeme Steel, chief executive of iNADO, an umbrella group that includes the world's leading anti-doping agencies, told Reuters.
"We can't see what has enabled those athletes to demonstrate that they are clean. As it stands at the moment, we can't verify how they've gotten there."
The IOC did not answer questions about criticism of the selection process.
It said in a statement to Reuters: "The result came after intensive weeks of work by the Independent Invitation Review Panel members, in which they went into detailed consideration of each individual athlete."
Russian officials are upset that Ahn, biathlete Anton Shipulin and other top competitors have been excluded and their appeals rejected. It will not have enough athletes for relays in certain events.
Speed skater Olga Graf, who won two bronze in Sochi, said last month that she had turned down the IOC invitation to compete. She was the only Russian athlete to reject the IOC invitation.
Graf said the exclusion of several team mates would prevent Olympic Athletes from Russia from contending for a medal in the team pursuit event.
Cazeneuve initially projected Russia would win two gold medals in Pyeongchang, close to the three in Vancouver.
He projected Russia's teenage figure skater Alina Zagitova and speed skater Denis Yuskov would win gold. But Yuskov was not invited by the IOC and CAS on Thursday determined its ad hoc division in Pyeongchang lacked jurisdiction to deal with the case.
"The result is bizarre: a delegation of 'Olympic Athletes from Russia' little different in number than recent Russian Winter Olympic Teams," said Joseph de Pencier, the former CEO of iNADO who continues to work in anti-doping.
"This undermines any punishment or deterrent effect of IOC consequences for systemic doping and corruption of anti-doping in Russia."
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Anna Willard)