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Why Russian athletes are marching as “OARs” at the Winter Olympics closing ceremony

“OAR” stands for “Olympic Athlete from Russia.”

Olympic Athletes from Russia (OARs) enter the stadium during the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium on February 9, 2018, in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. 
Olympic Athletes from Russia (OARs) enter the stadium during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium on February 9, 2018, in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. 
Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

At the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, many viewers were puzzled when a group of plainly dressed athletes in drab gray coats and blue jeans competing for the country “OAR” marched in.

Which country’s colors are gray and denim? Which country is OAR???

But it wasn’t a brand new country: OAR stands for “Olympic Athlete from Russia.” It’s how all 169 Russian athletes competing in Pyeongchang have had to be identified in the 2018 Winter Games as a punishment for the Russian government’s massive doping scheme that allowed it to cheat in the past two Olympics.

They couldn’t wear their country’s colors (hence the drab, neutral-colored uniforms), they couldn’t display the Russian flag (why they marched under a neutral flag with just the Olympics logo on it), and the medals they’ve won won’t go toward Russia’s medal count in the history books.

And now the International Olympic Committee, the body that oversees the Olympic Games, has officially ruled that the Olympic athletes from Russia won’t be allowed to march under the Russian flag in the closing ceremony, either. So once again, the OARs will be marching under the generic white Olympic flag.

Why is Russia not in the Olympics?

In December, the IOC announced that it was banning Russia from competing in Pyeongchang to penalize the country for its vast, government-run doping scheme that allowed it to cheat in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The committee made the decision after completing a lengthy investigation into Russia’s doping program. The World Anti-Doping Agency, the premier international watchdog for monitoring athletes’ use of illicit substances, also released a report in December 2016 that found damning evidence that Russia had used tactics like urine sample swapping to mask its athletes’ cheating in international sports for years.

“It is impossible to know just how deep and how far back this conspiracy goes,” Richard McLaren, the author of the WADA report, told journalists at the time. “For years, international sports competitions have unknowingly been hijacked by Russians. Coaches and athletes have been playing on an uneven field. Sports fans and spectators have been deceived. It’s time that this stops.”

The investigation said that the urine samples of 12 Russian medalists at the Sochi Winter Olympics, where Russia won 33 medals, showed signs of tampering. That was typically detected through DNA inconsistencies in the urine or scratches on the inside of the cap of the sample. And 15 medalists during the 2012 London Olympics, where Russia won 72 medals, had samples that had been tampered with.

”It was a cover-up that evolved from uncontrolled chaos to an institutionalized and disciplined medal-winning conspiracy,” McLaren explained. The investigation claims that the scheme’s participants included the Russian Sports Ministry, the FSB intelligence service, and, somewhat ironically, the country’s own anti-doping agency.

A previous report had already documented how during the Sochi Games, Russian athletes had their urine samples snuck out of labs through “mouse holes,” opened up using a technique that allows the seal to stay intact, replaced with clean urine, and then placed back in the lab. The report claimed that the process was overseen by Russian secret service agents disguised as sewer engineers.

The revelations shocked the world, and sports officials across the international community called for harsh penalties against Russia — including banning the country from the Olympics altogether until they cleaned up their act.

OARs — Olympic Athletes from Russia — are the result of an awkward compromise

The IOC decided a total ban wasn’t fair to Russian athletes who hadn’t violated doping rules, so it came up with a compromise: Individual Russian athletes could still compete if they could pass a screening process and demonstrate that they hadn’t violated doping rules.

And those who did get to compete would have to do so under a specially designated status — they’d be there as individuals who happen to be Russian, rather than as official representatives of Russia.

Which is how we ended up with OARs: Olympic Athletes from Russia.