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Russia’s Olympic team was just banned from the 2018 Winter Games

Accused of widespread doping and cheating, many Russian athletes will lose the chance to compete under their country's flag.

PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics Venue Tour Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Russia’s Olympic team has been banned from the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea because of evidence of a systematic state-sponsored doping program — arguably the harshest punishment in Olympic history. Individual Russian athletes can apply to compete, but they will not be permitted to wear a country uniform.

Russian officials won’t be permitted to attend the games, the country's flag won't appear at the opening ceremony, and its national anthem will not be played.

The International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban Russia is the result of a 16-month investigation into evidence Russia had a widespread, systemized cheating problem. And on Sunday, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) released a report confirming they had evidence that Russian authorities appeared to have backed a cheating scam with Russian athletes, providing them with performance enhancing drugs and skewing test results, ensuring that Russian athletes only produced negative tests.

Russia has been under scrutiny about doping for years

Russia was accused of a widespread doping problem during the last Winter Olympics, held in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.

Just before the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, in September 2016, WADA issued a damning report detailing a pervasive, state-run cover-up of cheating by Russian athletes.

"We have evidence revealing that more than 500 positive results (for performance-enhancing drugs) were reported as negative,” Richard McLaren, a Canadian law professor who ran the investigation, told the press in September 2016, “including well-known and elite-level athletes, who had their positive results automatically falsified." The WADA report pointed a finger at a web of collaboration in Russia, including the Russian Sports Ministry and the Russian Anti-Doping Agency.

Russian officials dismissed the report. WADA recommended the IOC ban Russia from the 2016 Rio games. Instead, the IOC decided to allow each sport to consider the fate of athletes individually.

In the meantime, a number of Russian athletes have been exposed for doping retroactively, and lost their medals. These individuals have already been banned from future Olympic games. Further, a Russian scientist who left Moscow for the United States has also told the press, and athletics authorities, that more than a dozen of Russia’s most recent Olympic medal count were won by cheating.

For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin has long rejected the idea that Russian athletes are cheating. He has implied the entire scandal is both baseless and politically motivated, set up by his international rivals. He is also deeply personally invested in the Olympics. He was photographed cavorting in Sochi with the Russian hockey team and other Russian athletes, and he has made it clear Russian presence is a point of pride for the nation.

Just last week, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko insisted, "There has never been and will never be any state programs related to doping."

Russia’s doping was first exposed by two whistleblowers. One, Vitaly Stepanov, was married to a Russian runner. In story out of a Cold War era novel, the couple fled Russia after Stepanov surreptitiously recorded evidence of efforts to protect athletes who were cheating. He gave those tapes to a German documentary journalist named Hajo Seppelt whose report triggered a wave of indignation.

The decision to ban Russia also casts an international critical eye on the nation that will host the 2018 World Cup in June.

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