Russia Olympic decision looming

GENEVA — In a possible shift of support for Russian athletes competing at the Pyeongchang Olympics, IOC President Thomas Bach told critics on Friday not to put pressure on his executive board before a key decision next month.

Bach will chair an IOC board meeting on Dec. 5 which could ban Russia’s team from the Winter Games because of state-sponsored doping at the 2014 Sochi Games.

Long seen as Russia’s ally, Bach this month seemed to confirm that position when he criticized “unacceptable” demands for a total ban while two Olympic panels investigate the Sochi doping program. Ten Russians have already been disqualified.

However, in a speech on Friday, Bach cautioned against those “from whichever side” seeking to influence the IOC.

“Some may try to build pressure. They will be wrong,” the IOC leader told European Olympic officials meeting in Zagreb, Croatia.

Russian officials have this month threatened not to televise the Pyeongchang Games, and block the release of players from clubs in the Moscow-based Kontinental Hockey League. The KHL warning came from league president Dmitry Chernyshenko, who previously headed the Sochi organizing committee.

The IOC is facing the same politicized decision over Russia as it did before the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

In July 2016, Bach’s board did not impose a blanket ban on Russia after investigator Richard McLaren published his first report into the Sochi program less than three weeks before the Rio opening ceremony. Instead, the IOC let individual sports governing bodies lead the decision-making.

Bach was seen then as prioritizing Russian athletes’ rights to compete in what proved a chaotic period of urgent legal cases based on McLaren’s interim report. The full investigation report published last December went even deeper into the Russian doping program, and beyond winter sports.

The “important difference” this time, Bach said on Friday, was that accused Russian athletes have had due legal process and a fair hearing from the IOC.

“Now it is about what happened at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014. Now it is about us,” Bach told leaders of European national Olympic bodies.

“Now it is about the integrity of the Olympic Games. Now it is about what happened at Olympic Games in a laboratory of the Olympic Games. What happened with Olympic athletes. What happened with Olympic medallists.”

“This is what we have to bear in mind when I say that we will take a fair decision.”

Bach said he did not know what was in the report of an IOC commission asked to verify McLaren’s conclusion that Russian state agencies orchestrated the doping program.

The report from panel chairman Samuel Schmid, the former president of Switzerland, will be given to the IOC board.

Russian authorities, including President Vladimir Putin, have repeatedly denied they knew of a widespread doping program. Instead, they blame former laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov.

Rodchenkov fled to the United States, where he is in a witness protection program, and made allegations as a whistleblower in May 2016 which McLaren later supported with evidence.