By Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Russia would not prevent its athletes from competing at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics if they wanted to, damping down calls from some Russians for a boycott of the Games.
The IOC on Tuesday banned the Russian team from the Olympics after evidence emerged of an “unprecedented systematic manipulation” of the anti-doping system but left the door open for some Russians to compete as neutrals if they demonstrate they have a doping-free background.
“Without any doubt, we will not declare a blockade, we will not prevent our Olympians from taking part (in the Games), if one of them wants to participate in a personal capacity,” Putin said on state television.
In his first comments since the ban, Putin took aim at Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory whose allegations of state-sponsored doping and a cover-up at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics triggered investigations that ultimately led to the IOC decision.
Without identifying Rodchenkov by name, Putin said the IOC’s decision had been “mainly based on the testimonies of a person whose moral and ethical attitudes and psychological state raise many questions.”
“Most of the accusations are based on facts that have not been proven and are largely unfounded,” Putin said.
Putin said that Russia bore a share of blame for the IOC decision for having given international Olympic authorities a pretext for banning the country.
“I think that this excuse was not used in an honest way, to put it mildly,” Putin said without elaborating.
He did not budge on Russia’s insistence that there was no state-sponsored doping system in the country.
“Why are our Olympians being banned from competing under the Russian flag and national symbols, if there is no state support for doping? Then punish those who are guilty,” Putin said.
Putin, who announced on Wednesday he would run in a Russian presidential election next year, said he had not instructed officials to deliver victory for the Russian team at the Sochi Games.
The Kremlin leader said a final decision on Russia’s stance regarding the IOC ban would be made at a meeting of Russian Olympic authorities in the coming days.
South Korea’s sports ministry said on Thursday that the ban on Russia participation is “regrettable”, and urged Russian athletes to take part.
“If we will be able to see the excellent performance that Russian athletes demonstrated in previous winter games, that will make a huge contributions to the success of the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics,” the ministry said in a statement.
Russian authorities have vehemently denied any state support for doping and have pledged to cooperate with international sports authorities to counter the use of banned performance-enhancing drugs.
In the weeks ahead of Tuesday’s IOC decision, more than 20 Russian athletes who competed at the 2014 Sochi Games were banned for life from the Olympics for having allegedly violated anti-doping rules.
Russia’s athletics federation, Paralympic Committee and anti-doping agency RUSADA remain suspended over doping scandals.
(Reporting by Jack Stubbs, Additional reporting by Soyoung Kim in SEOUL,; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Christian Lowe & Simon Cameron-Moore)