Members of the Russian gymnastics team departed for Rio de Janeiro on Sunday morning, hours before a ruling is expected by the IOC on whether it will bar the entire country from the 2016 Olympic Games.
Members of the Russian gymnastics team departed for Rio de Janeiro on Sunday morning, hours before a ruling is expected by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on whether it will bar the entire country from the 2016 Olympic Games.
"We are not panicking, everyone is preparing, everyone is in the mood, everyone believes and will believe till the very end," Russian coach Valentina Rodionenko said
The delegation left Moscow at 6 a.m. and will connect via Amsterdam on their way to Rio de Janeiro, where they are scheduled for a 6 p.m. arrival. The gymnastics team is the first group of Russian athletes to leave for Rio, where gymnastics competition begins the day after the Opening Ceremonies.
The IOC is scheduled to issue its verdict on Sunday on Russia's fate following Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren's report, an independent investigation done on behalf of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which was released last Sunday. The report alleged that Russia was engaged in state-sponsored doping at a lab in Moscow and at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
Russia's track & field athletes were previously barred from competing in Rio by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which suspended the country from all international events earlier this year. This suspension was upheld on Thursday by Switzerland's Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which did not weigh in on any doping issue but confirmed that a nation may not compete in a sport at the Olympic Games without approval from that sport's governing body.
Following the CAS decision, the IOC said it would review its legal options for a collective ban of all Russian athletes. The IOC has also said it is seeking to balance "collective responsibility and individual justice."
The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) came out in support this week of Russia's gymnasts participating at the 2016 Olympic Games, as did Jani Tanskannen, president of the FIG's Athlete Commission. Gymnastics has only had a few isolated cases of doping, most involving diuretics. Romania's Andreea Raducan is the only gymnast to ever be stripped of an Olympic medal for a positive doping test, after she tested positive in 2000 for a substance found in cold medicine that is no longer considered a performance-enhancing drugs. Of the 600+ athletes whose samples were alleged in the McClaren report to have been tampered with at a Moscow lab, none belonged to any gymnasts.
Meanwhile, Russia's gymnasts have continued to train at full force for the Olympic Games in Rio, where they are expected to be a major force. The men's and women's teams both won the team gold medal at this spring's European championships in Bern, where Aliya Mustafina (balance beam), Nikita Nagornyy (floor exercise) and David Belyavsky (parallel bars) won individual gold medals.
Russia is also a medal contender in trampoline, and its rhythmic gymnasts dominate the sport, having won the individual all-around at every Olympics since 2000. At the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Russia finished second to China in the medal count in gymnastics events.
The Russian gymnasts and coaches have reported they are distressed by the situation, but remain hopeful.
"Of course I'm sorry for the guys in athletics, who were preparing for the Olympics and don't get to go," said 2012 Olympian Denis Ablyazin. "But it is not our sport – it has nothing to do with us. What is happening with them should not affect us. We are focused on our business. We work in the gym and don't see what is happening in other sports. I do not believe that the whole Russian Olympic team will be removed from the Games. I believe in the best."
Two Russian track & field athletes who train outside of Russia have been given permission by the IAAF and the IOC to compete as independent Olympians in Rio, and not under the Russian flag. Several Russian gymnasts and coaches stated that if they were given permission to compete under the generic Olympic flag in Rio, they would refuse.
"We are optimistic and believe that good sense will prevail in the IOC," said head coach Andrei Rodionenko. "But in the case of a bad outcome, it will be hard for us to compete under another flag, so we will not act under the IOC flag."
Valentina Rodionenko said that if the Russians are banned from the 2016 Olympics, it would likely mean the end of the careers for many on the team.
"I don't know [if I would retire]," said Mustafina, captain for Russia's women's team and the defending Olympic champion on uneven bars. "First of all I would be very upset and most likely withdraw from everything. When I calmed down, I would have to make decisions about future plans. But I very much hope that all will be well, and we will get to the Olympics."
There are several rulings the IOC could issue on Sunday. Possible outcomes – and what that would mean for gymnastics – include:
No action. The IOC could decline to take any punitive action against the Russian athletes, citing the fact that while the allegations are extremely serious, they have not been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be true. Athletes and officials have not been subject to due process in any case against them, the accused have not been questioned and nobody has testified under oath. The IOC could defer any punishment until a complete investigation has been carried out and tribunals convened. This outcome is not expected, as the IOC is under major pressure to take a tough stance against doping prior to the Olympic Games.
Allow clean athletes to compete as independent Olympians. The IOC could ban Russia, but somehow agree to let athletes not under suspicion of doping compete under the IOC flag and not under the Russian flag. Russian gymnasts and coaches have said they would not agree to this option.
Leave it up to individual international sports federations. The IOC could rule that Russia's participation would be up to each individual Olympic sports federation. Several sports are not plagued by doping. The Association of Summer Olympic International Federations announced this week that it supported this outcome. The Russians would get the green light to compete in gymnastics, as the FIG has already come out in strong support of their participation.
Blanket ban of all Russian athletes. This would be the most severe outcome from the IOC that would allow it to look tough on doping, but which ultimately would prevent untold numbers of innocent athletes from competing in the Olympic Games. This outcome would result in complete chaos across the board as hundreds of athletes, coaches and officials from around the world would be in limbo. Russia certainly would immediately appeal this ruling, keeping the outcome for all unknown up until the last minute. It is unknown if the Russian athletes would be allowed to stay in the Olympic village and participate in official training while the appeal goes on. Meanwhile, alternate athletes who have not been training for the Olympic Games, along with coaches and officials, would suddenly be told to show up in Rio, where the Olympics begin on August 5. Brazil requires travel visas for nearly all countries that would have to be approved at the last minute.
In artistic gymnastics, the two alternate teams, the Australian women and Romanian men, would be told to pack their bags. With 12 days to go before the Olympic Games and with the other teams already arriving, Australia and Romania would have to immediately select five-member teams and travel to Rio. This would be an absolute fiasco. Some of the gymnasts who did not qualify to the Olympics have taken well-deserved breaks or even retired since their last competitions. There would not be time to organize an Olympic selection event, and the Australian and Romanian gymnastics federations would have to somehow fairly select a team based on prior results or one workout session in a manner that meets the selection criteria of their respective Olympic Committees. The replacement gymnasts, despite any gratitude and excitement that they were allowed to compete, would feel cheated that they were not able to perform 100 percent at the Olympic Games. The Russian gymnasts, barred from competition without a single allegation of wrongdoing on their part, would feel not only cheated but a lifetime of pain and bitterness. The saga would overwhelm the gymnastics competition in Rio de Janeiro and the Olympians would face constant media questions about the Russian competitors who weren't there. Much like the Cold War boycotts of 1980 and 1984, a ban of Russia in 2016 would leave an asterisk over the results and cloud the competition at the Games, wholly unfair to all participants.
External Link: Russian Gymnastics Federation