By Karolos Grohmann
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - The International Olympic Committee (IOC) dashed Russian athletes' hopes of marching behind their national flag at the Winter Games closing ceremony on Sunday, deciding against immediately lifting Russia's Olympic suspension after fresh doping violations.
Russians have been competing as neutral athletes at the Games, their Olympic status suspended, as IOC punishment for years of drug scandals involving allegations that Russia ran a systematic, state-backed drug-cheating programme.
The IOC said two Russian doping violations during the Pyeongchang Games had marred an otherwise clean report card for the delegation at the Games, though later on Sunday, Russia's ice hockey team violated the IOC's rules on neutrality by singing the Russian national anthem.
IOC President Thomas Bach said the two positive doping tests were impossible to ignore in making the decision to keep the suspension in place until after the Games close.
"This was hugely disappointing and, in addition to other considerations, prevented the IOC from even considering lifting the suspension for the closing ceremony," IOC President Thomas Bach said in presenting the recommendation to IOC members.
Bach said Russia's Olympic status would be restored automatically once it was confirmed there were no other doping violations by Russian athletes at Pyeongchang.
"That is an automatic decision," he told reporters. "This is an objective condition... and then the sanction is lifted."
The suspended Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) said it hoped to return to the Olympic family in the coming days.
"We hope and really count on that in the next few days, the membership of the Russian Olympic Committee in the IOC will be completely restored," it said in a statement.
"In light of the situation, we consider that the restoration of the rights of the ROC and all Russian athletes will be the main result of the Olympic Games that are ending today."
'TIME NEEDS TO PASS'
Competition at the Winter Games concluded on Sunday and final drug-testing results might not be known for several days or even weeks.
"I'm very disappointed," said Elena Valbe, president of the Russian cross-country skiing federation.
"Some athletes stayed behind later with the hope that they would be walking under the Russian flag. I've heard athletes say that they were staying just because they wanted to walk with the flag and in our uniform."
Former Olympic ice hockey champion Igor Larionov told Reuters it was hard for Russian players to stand on the podium under the Olympic flag when they won a gold medal.
"Time needs to pass for the right to have the flag back, I think," the Russian said. "It is difficult for me to understand how any figure skater, hockey player or skier can win gold and stand on the podium without their flag. It's sad."
Bogdan Kiselevich, a member of the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) team that beat Germany to win men's ice hockey gold on Sunday, said singing the Russian anthem at the medal ceremony had not been a spur-of-the moment decision.
"From the start," he said, after he was asked when they had decided to sing it. "It has been decided with the flag so we had to do it."
Kiselevich's team mate Vyacheslav Voynov said the players had shrugged off the news that they would not be allowed to march with the Russian flag at the closing ceremony.
"We are not bothered," he told reporters. "It's of course sad for us. But if that's what was decided then it has to be that way."
Russia's Olympic delegation chief and its figure skating silver medallist, Evgenia Medvedeva, had made a last appeal to the IOC on Saturday for their suspension to be lifted, apologising for the two doping violations during the Games.
Medal-winning curler Alexander Krushelnitsky and bobsledder Nadezhda Sergeeva failed doping tests, angering a team that had been through extensive testing before and during the first days of Games competition without returning any positive results.
The lawyer for Grigory Rodchenkov, the former Russian doping laboratory director who turned whistleblower and helped to expose the drugs scandal, said "cooler heads" at the IOC had prevailed and stopped Russia's immediate Olympic return.
Rodchenkov currently lives in hiding in the United States.
"Thomas Bach was a drowning man but finally cooler heads within the IOC threw him a life preserver," Jim Walden said in a statement.
"Yet, in the decision, the IOC had the gall to claim Russia 'respected' its decision on December 5th to institute the suspension. The acrimony caused by Bach's mismanagement should be his undoing," Walden said.
At the Games, the Russians have been unable to wear national uniforms or have their anthem played at medal presentations.
Russian delegation chief Stanislav Pozdnyakov has said that the prospect of flying the flag at Sunday's closing ceremony meant more to his athletes than winning medals.
In December, the IOC had held out the prospect of lifting Russia's suspension for the closing ceremony, on the condition its athletes met a strict code of conduct, including compliance with anti-doping rules and observance of athlete neutrality.
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann, Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber; Editing by Mark Bendeich, Peter Rutherford and Clare Fallon)