MOSCOW (AP) — A depleted Russian team departed for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, missing dozens of athletes who were excluded amid the country’s doping scandal.
Team members left on a charter flight from Moscow’s Sheremetevo airport to Brazil, a day after an emotional farewell ceremony with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.
More than 100 athletes from what was originally a 387-strong team have been barred from competing in Rio by international sports federations under sanctions which most Russian athletes consider unfair.
“We’re after medals, that’s it,” handball player Anna Sen said as she prepared to board the flight. “We need to fight for those athletes who were disqualified.”
Volleyball player Sergei Tetyukhin, a four-time Olympic medalist, will be Russia’s flagbearer for the opening ceremony in Rio, according to pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva.
Isinbayeva, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, has become a de facto spokeswoman for Russian athletes excluded from the Olympics and gave a tearful address to the team in the Kremlin on Wednesday.
“Today, as never before, we need to stay united and become a family,” the 40-year-old Tetyukhin said, ignoring what he called “provocations addressed at our team and our mighty country.”
No track and field athletes were among the contingent heading for Rio, since the entire track team is banned from competing, except for a single U.S.-based long jumper, following revelations of widespread doping.
The track team did, however, attend the ceremonial farewell with Putin on Wednesday, when the Russian president branded restrictions on Russia as “pure discrimination.”
Hours after the plane carrying the Russian team took off, the track and field team gathered across town in a small stadium for what was billed as an Olympic consolation event.
World champions competed against regional-level athletes in front of around 150 spectators in an event hastily organized after the track team’s ban was upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) last week.
Isinbayeva watched from the sidelines, vowing defiance and legal action.
“You can’t break Russians,” she said. “People have tried to break us down, but it’s never worked … What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
She added that she plans to file another appeal to CAS and also the European Court of Human Rights.
While Russia avoided a blanket ban from the games at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee board on Sunday, the IOC imposed new restrictions on Russia. International sports federations must now remove any athlete previously banned for doping or who was implicated in last week’s McLaren report alleging a mass cover up of failed drug tests.
Some federations have taken a tough line, with exclusions of much of Russia’s team from events such as rowing, canoeing and swimming. Other sports, such as judo and tennis, have allowed the entire Russian team to compete in their sport. These rulings must still be ratified by the CAS.
Some Russian athletes had flown to Rio in advance of the main delegation, including gymnasts and swimmers. Russia’s head swim coach Sergei Kolmogorov told Russian agency R-Sport that swimmers barred from the games, including world 100-meter breaststroke champion Yulia Efimova, were at a pre-Olympic training camp in Brazil in hope of a late reprieve to allow them to race in Rio.
Russia’s weightlifting team has been dogged by doping cases and faced further embarrassment Wednesday when retests of samples from the 2012 Olympics saw four Russians, including three medalists, test positive. The entire lifting team risks being banned from the Rio Games because of the large number of failures in retests from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
Putin last week called for the creation of a new state-backed anti-doping commission to draw up future strategy. In a clear sign of coordination, it was set up within hours under Vitaly Smirnov, a former Soviet sports minister and IOC member.
Smirnov told local media Thursday that the new commission would be independent of the government, despite containing several senior figures with links to the Kremlin. Smirnov also insisted the government was not involved in doping, despite allegations in World Anti-Doping Agency reports that Sports Ministry officials oversaw a mass doping program and a cover-up.
“We will welcome the arrival of WADA and we rule out any attempts at interference by the state or other structures,” he said. “In Russia there is not and never has been any state support for doping.”