By Karolos Grohmann
(Reuters) - The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has rejected clarion calls for Russia to be banned from next month's Rio Olympics over the nation's doping record, offering athletes a lifeline by ruling that decisions on individual competitors will be left to the international sports federations.
The IOC's decision on Sunday, less than two weeks before the Rio Games opens on Aug. 5, follows the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) call for a blanket ban in response to the independent McLaren report that found evidence of state-sponsored doping by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
"I think in this way, we have balanced on the one hand, the desire and need for collective responsibility versus the right to individual justice of every individual athlete," IOC President Thomas Bach said on a conference call.
"In this way we are protecting the clean athletes because of the high criteria we set. This may not please everybody, but this result is one which is respecting the rules of justice and all the clean athletes all over the world."
WADA and 14 national anti-doping organisations had urged the IOC to impose a blanket ban in the wake of the damning McLaren report, but former Olympic fencing champion Bach said that Russian sportsmen and women "will have to clear the highest hurdle to take part in the Olympics".
The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) said the IOC had failed to show leadership with its decision.
"Many, including clean athletes and whistleblowers, have demonstrated courage and strength in confronting a culture of state-supported doping and corruption within Russia," USADA chief Travis Tygart said.
"Disappointingly, however, in response to the most important moment for clean athletes and the integrity of the Olympic Games, the IOC has refused to take decisive leadership. The decision regarding Russian participation and the confusing mess left in its wake is a significant blow to the rights of clean athletes."
Russia's Sports Minister, Vitaly Mutko, said the decision cleared the way for Russian participation.
"I hope that the majority of international federations will very promptly confirm the right of (Russian) sportspeople in different types of sports to take part in the Olympic Games," Mutko said.
The International Tennis Federation wasted no time in clearing the seven Russian players nominated for Rio. The ITF said the players have been subject to a rigorous anti-doping programme outside Russia, which it considers sufficient to meet the IOC's requirements.
SPOTLESS RECORD REQUIRED
For individuals to be allowed to compete at Rio they must have a spotless international record on drug testing, the IOC said, adding athletes who have been sanctioned in the past for doping will not be eligible.
That would dash the hopes of middle-distance runner Yulia Stepanova, the whistleblower and former drug cheat whose initial evidence led to one of the biggest doping scandals in decades.
The IOC had said this week that it would not organise or give patronage to any sports event in Russia and that no member of the Russian Sports Ministry implicated in the McLaren report would be accredited for Rio.
It also ordered the immediate re-testing of all Russian athletes from the Sochi Olympics.
Though a series of international federations, anti-doping agencies and athletes have since called for a blanket ban, some have said they are against punishing innocent athletes.
"It would be quite difficult for us to think we should ban an entire team, which will include some cyclists who are not implicated in any of these stories we've been hearing," said Brian Cookson, president of the International Cycling Union.
"We're going to have to look at it case by case, rider by rider and team by team. At the end of the day, Russians are not the only sportsmen or women who have been found doping."
Russian officials and government officers have said the doping allegations are part of a Western conspiracy against their country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had warned that the affair could split the Olympic movement, bringing echoes of the 1980s. The United States led a political boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games and the Soviet Union led an Eastern Bloc boycott of the Los Angeles Games four years later.
(Additional reporting by Steve Tongue, Gene Cherry and Jack Stubbs; Editing by David Goodman)