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(News Focus) IOC's Russia ban could rob PyeongChang 2018 of star power

All News 09:53 December 06, 2017

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Dec. 6 (Yonhap) -- A decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban Russia from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics over state-sponsored doping could rob South Korea's first Winter Games of some much-needed star power.

Following its meeting at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, the IOC's Executive Board announced it would suspend the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), effective immediately. The IOC added that individual Russian athletes would still be allowed to compete as neutrals, provided that they meet strict conditions. Their uniforms will bear the Olympic Flag, and the Olympic Anthem, not the Russian anthem, will be played in medal ceremonies if they win gold.

Though it wasn't a blanket ban on Russia, the decision may still prompt the country to instruct or encourage its athletes to boycott PyeongChang 2018 altogether.

Russia has been a strong Winter Olympic presence across the board for years, and a boycott would deal a blow to PyeongChang 2018 in terms of ticket sales and TV ratings. And PyeongChang has already been struggling to draw attention to the majority of events, except for a few sports such as short track speed skating and figure skating.

In this Associated Press photo taken Feb. 7, 2014, members of the Russian delegation enter Fisht Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The International Olympic Committee banned Russia from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics over state-sponsored doping on Dec. 5, 2017, allowing only a select few athletes to compete as neutrals if they meet strict conditions. (Yonhap)

And South Korean fans also won't get to see perhaps the most recognizable Russian athlete: short track speed skater Victor An.

Born Ahn Hyun-soo in South Korea, the skater acquired Russian passport in 2011 and competed for his adopted country at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. He won three gold medals, becoming the first Russian to win an Olympic short track title in the process. His homecoming of sorts to PyeongChang could also be the last Olympic hurrah for the 32-year-old. An won three gold medals for South Korea at the 2006 Olympics and is among the most decorated Winter Olympians in history.

Teen figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva is a gold medal favorite in the ladies' singles in PyeongChang, but now the question is whether she will even compete at all.

The 18-year-old addressed the IOC's Executive Board before the decision was announced, explaining how she couldn't bring herself to compete as a neutral athlete if it came to that.

But after the ban was handed down, Medvedeva didn't commit one way or the other and said the question of whether she would skip the Olympics entirely or compete as a neutral was premature.

In this Associated Press photo, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach reacts during a press conference following an Executive Board meeting at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Dec. 5, 2017. (Yonhap)

The men's hockey tournament could suffer serious repercussions without Russian players. It's already taken a hit with the decision by the National Hockey League (NHL) not to send its players to the competition, which falls in the middle of the professional season, and a boycott by Russia would further take away what little glitter was left on the competition.

The Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), viewed as the world's second-best circuit behind the NHL, has threatened to withdraw all its players from PyeongChang. Without the NHL, medal contenders such as Canada and the United States were planning to pick KHL players -- some of them former NHL regulars -- for the Olympics. The KHL's absence would mean even less interest in what is usually the marquee event of the Winter Olympics.

Meanwhile, neither the presence of neutral athletes from Russia nor a boycott are likely to have much impact on host South Korea's medal prospects.

In short track speed skating, Victor An's absence may make life easier for South Korean men, although Russia as a team didn't fare particularly well during the International Skating Union (ISU) World Cup races.

In this file photo taken July 17, 2017, Victor An, Russian short track speed skater born Ahn Hyun-soo in South Korea, trains at Korea National Sport University in Seoul. (Yonhap)

In the men's hockey tournament, South Korea is paired with Canada, the Czech Republic and Switzerland in Group A. With or without NHL or KHL players, South Korea, the lowest-ranked nation in the group at No. 21, will still be the underdog against all three opponents.

In figure skating, South Korea will send two athletes to the ladies' singles and one each to the men's singles and ice dance, but the lack of Russian competitors doesn't mean the host country will be considered medal favorites for any of these events.


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