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What's Next For Russian Olympic Athletes

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The International Olympic Committee says it regrets very much a decision yesterday to overturn its suspension of 28 Russian athletes for doping. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that the IOC's case just wasn't solid enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTHIEU REEB: This is a case built on circumstantial evidence. It is a matter where there is no direct evidence.

GREENE: The IOC had given lifetime bans to these athletes for doping at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. This decision means they may be able to compete again, maybe as soon as this month at the Winter Games in South Korea. Rachel Axon covers the Olympics for USA Today, and she joins us on the line. Hi, Rachel.

RACHEL AXON: Good morning.

GREENE: So can you explain this decision to overturn these lifetime bans?

AXON: The Court of Arbitration for Sport in reviewing 43 cases - there are some - or 42 - some still pending - found 28 did not have sufficient evidence to meet an anti-doping rule violation in terms of the athletes' role in this systemic doping. This conspiracy is one of the charges under the World Anti-Doping Code. It did uphold the disqualification sanction part for 11 different athletes but did not uphold the lifetime ban. That's something that the IOC knew full well going into it was unlikely to last. So those 11 athletes, some of whom have retired, are not able to participate or go to Korea but may participate in future games theoretically. In terms of the 28 athletes in Korea, that's still very much a question mark right now.

GREENE: So, I mean, before we get to even the upcoming games, this could change history back in Sochi, right? Could this actually change the medal count?

AXON: Yes, absolutely. Everything is pending appeal. Of course, this could continue on, but Russia has lost a total of 13 medals. The decisions yesterday reinstate nine of them, which puts Russia back up on top of the medal count by either way that you do it, overall medals or, you know, gold medals. They are back in the lead there, assuming this stands and the IOC doesn't appeal it further.

GREENE: That's amazing. It, like, changes the narrative from those games in such a big way. Well, speaking of narratives, going into this game, I mean, such a narrative that Russia is said to have this huge state-sponsored doping program. I mean, there's a distinction, of course, that has been made between the program and the athletes themselves. But does that sort of change how Russia is seen going into South Korea?

AXON: I don't think it does. It's been many years where revelations have come out from whistleblowers who were with - running within that system and revealed evidence that has backed up their findings. The World Anti-Doping Agency, the IOC, have both accepted the existence of this system on its whole. That's why the IOC took the move to suspend the Russian Olympic Committee. And those athletes competing in Korea will do so as Olympic athletes from Russia, a neutral designation without their flag.

GREENE: OK, but some of these athletes might actually be able to compete, which could be extraordinary.

AXON: Possible, but the IOC has said, you know, not being sanctioned does not mean we're going to give you an invitation.

GREENE: All right. Well, if you cover the Olympics, I guess this is an exciting moment. You're getting ready to go to South Korea, I gather.

AXON: Yes, I am.

GREENE: All right. Well, have a good trip. USA Today's Rachel Axon joining us this morning, thanks a lot.

AXON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.