Russia’s national anthem has been a regular refrain at medal ceremonies during the Winter Olympics, but “Gimn Rossiiskoi Federatsii” (translation: National Anthem of the Russian Federation) won’t be heard at next month’s Pyeongchang Games in South Korea. In fact, there’s a greater chance -- albeit not so great -- of North Korea’s “Aegukka” (translation: The Patriotic Song) being played. That follows a buildup to the Feb. 9-25 Olympics that’s been dominated first by doping politics -- and then by actual politics.
1. What’s the status of Russian and North Korean participation?
In December, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Switzerland-based governing body of the Olympics, banned Russia from sending a team to the Pyeongchang Games for having operated a state-sponsored program to enhance athletic performance through drugs. Some individual Russian athletes will still be able to compete, however. North Korea, for its part, will participate in the Winter Games for the first time in eight years, the result of talks in January with its neighbor and Olympic host, South Korea. Olympic authorities had been trying since at least 2014 to smooth the path for its participation.
2. How will their athletes be represented?
Some Russian athletes who pass drug tests will be allowed to participate as “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” competing under the Olympic flag rather than the Russian one and accepting any gold medals to the tune of the Olympic anthem rather than “Gimn Rossiiskoi Federatsii.” North Korean women will -- upon expected approval by the IOC -- play alongside their South Korean counterparts in ice hockey on what would be the first unified Korean team at an international sporting event since 1991. The IOC, at a meeting this weekend, will consider that question and iron out other details such as Korean anthems and uniforms and the number of North Korean athletes. But already the two Koreas have said they will march together at the opening ceremony under the Korean unification flag.
3. Aren’t these huge steps forward for international sports?
Yes and no. Russia is a huge scalp for the anti-doping movement, but its scheme operated for years without detection and was only uncovered thanks to a whistle-blower, Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Moscow’s anti-doping center. (His allegations, the subject of the Netflix documentary “Icarus,” were later backed up by forensic evidence.) North Korea’s interest in participating -- signaled in a New Year address by its leader, Kim Jong Un -- could mean at least a temporary pause in tensions on the Korean peninsula over his regime’s nuclear and missile testing. But we’ve been here before: The two nations paraded under the same flag at opening ceremonies of Olympic Games in 2000, 2004 and 2006. That period also witnessed escalating political strains as North Korea withdrew from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 2003 and staged its first nuclear test in 2006.
4. What will North Korea’s participation mean for medals?
Not much. In eight Winter Olympics, North Koreans have won just two medals -- a silver and a bronze. In fact, athletes are likely to be just a small fraction of North Korea’s entourage, which will include a cheering squad, art performers and martial artists. (North Korea observers will be keenly watching whether Kim will be represented by his No. 2 official -- Choe Ryong Hae, vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission -- or perhaps by his sister, Kim Yo Jong.)
5. Exactly how many Russian athletes will be competing?
That’s still unclear. In December, the head of the Russian Olympic Committee said more than 200 athletes might still go to Pyeongchang. The IOC has banned more than 40 Russians for doping. Thirty-nine of them are launching an appeal on Jan. 22, with a ruling expected by Feb. 2. According to the World Anti-Doping Agency, much of the dirty work took place at the Sochi Olympics in Russia four years ago, when laboratory and state security officials would switch drug-contaminated samples with clean ones. An independent report for the agency found the operation involved about 1,000 athletes between 2011 and 2015. Russia denies the allegations, saying they are a conspiracy.
6. What will Russia’s penalty mean for the medal count?
Russia remained a winter-sports powerhouse even after the breakup of the Soviet Union, so the absence of many of its athletes -- pending that drug appeal -- will likely open opportunities for other perennial medal gatherers such as Norway, Germany, the U.S. and Canada.
7. Have Olympians competed without a country before?
Many times, to get around political transitions, international sanctions and the like. There was a Refugee Olympic Athletes team at the Rio Olympics in 2016 that included a Syrian swimmer and a South Sudanese runner. Medals were won by independent Olympians in 1992 (Yugoslavian shooters) and in 2016 (Kuwaiti shooters).
The Reference Shelf
- Who’ll represent Kim Jong Un in Pyeongchang?
- The International Olympic Committee’s statement on banning Russia.
- The Netflix documentary, Icarus, centers on the Russian scientist-turned-whistle-blower whose allegations led to the ban.
- The first McLaren report into Russian doping and the second report.
- A QuickTake on doping in sports.