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Olympic doping bans of 28 Russian athletes overturned

Sport's highest tribunal has overturned the Olympic doping bans of 28 Russian athletes and reinstated their results at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi in upholding their appeals.

Unclear whether any will be able to compete at Winter Games in Pyeongchang

Russian gold-medal winner Alexander Legkov skis past the Olympic rings during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Krasnaya Polyana on Feb. 23, 2014. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled Thursday to reinstate Legkov as gold medallist in men's 50-km cross-country skiing, which he had been stripped of due to doping allegations. Twenty-seven other Russian athletes were also reinstated. (Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)

Sport's highest tribunal on Thursday overturned the Olympic doping bans of 28 Russian athletes and reinstated their results at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi in upholding their appeals.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) said in a statement that it had found insufficient evidence during last week's hearing in Geneva that the 28, banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), were guilty of anti-doping violations in Sochi.

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"With respect to these 28 athletes, the appeals are upheld, the sanctions annulled and their individual results achieved in Sochi 2014 are reinstated," said the Lausanne-based tribunal.

The 28 who had their bans lifted could now seek late entry into the Olympics, which start Feb. 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, but the IOC said "not being sanctioned does not automatically confer the privilege of an invitation."

The World Anti-Doping Agency said late Thursday it "notes with serious concern" the CAS decision and did not rule out an appeal.

"WADA understands that this decision will cause dismay and frustration among athletes. The agency supports the IOC's intention to analyze these decisions very carefully and consider all options, including an appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal."

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the ruling "can't fail to please us, and it confirms our position that the overwhelming majority of our athletes are clean athletes."

However, Putin also called for respect for the IOC, saying in comments reported by state news agency RIA Novosti that "there should not be any euphoria from our side and we need to be calm about this."

Lifetime Olympic bans reduced

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko said at a televised cabinet meeting that the government would back further legal action to allow the athletes to compete in Pyeongchang "if the IOC does not accept them."

Eleven other athletes were confirmed by CAS to have committed doping violations. However, CAS reduced their lifetime Olympic bans to a suspension from this year's Games.

The IOC had previously banned Russia from Pyeongchang as a result of its "unprecedented systematic manipulation" of the anti-doping system.

Thursday's decision could impact Canada's medal count in Sochi.

The Canadian luge team was expected to get upgraded to bronze — the first Olympic medal for Canada in the sport — after Russians Albert Demchenko and Tatiana Ivanova were stripped of their results and received lifetime bans. Both were members of the squad that won silver in the team event in Sochi, where Canada finished fourth.

Both Russians had their suspensions reversed and results reinstated by CAS on Thursday, prompting a strong reaction on social media from Sam Edney, one of the Canadian lugers who would have received bronze.

In the wake of Thursday's decision the Canadian Olympic Committee issued a strong statement in support of the IOC and anti-doping initiatives.

"Doping is an enemy of Olympic sport. It must stop. The Canadian Olympic Committee supports the IOC in taking all the necessary next steps to stop the scourge of doping.

"The COC will continue to work in rigorous partnership with all who will fight against doping in sport. Now more than ever, there must be consistent and clear individual and collective sanctions written into the rules of all International Federations and sport bodies to ensure credibility of the sport system, and fairness for athletes where ever they live."

Olympic gold medallist Beckie Scott, who serves as the chair of the World Anti-Doping Agency's athlete committee, said Edney has "every right" to be frustrated and called the CAS ruling a "massive setback" in the general fight against doping.

"This is a huge failure of the entire system to protect clean athletes and to work on their behalf, and athletes like Sam Edney have every right to feel angry and frustrated and disappointed," the three-time Olympian told The Canadian Press in a phone interview. "They have been let down by the system."

Scott had her bronze medal from the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 upgraded to silver when Russia's Larisa Lazutina was stripped of second place for doping. That silver was then promoted to gold after it was revealed first-place finisher Olga Danilova of Russia had tested positive for doping during the Games.

Individual Russian athletes are able to compete as neutrals if they can prove their anti-doping credentials, but the IOC said Thursday that the 28 would not necessarily be invited to Pyeongchang.

"Not being sanctioned does not automatically confer the privilege of an invitation," it said.

The confirmation of 11 cases "clearly demonstrates once more the existence of the systemic manipulation of the anti-doping system at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014," it added.

The IOC regretted that CAS "did not take this proven existence of the systemic manipulation of the anti-doping system into consideration for the other 28 cases."

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Whistleblower 'testified fully and credibly'

Cross-country skier Alexander Legkov, who won gold in the 50 kilometres and silver in the 4x10 km race, and Alexander Tretyakov, who won gold in the men's individual skeleton, were among those to be cleared.

Bobsleigh double gold medallist Alexander Zubkov was one of the 11 whose doping offences were confirmed.

Russian Olympic Committee president Alexander Zhukov said the CAS ruling had restored the "good name" of Russian athletes, Interfax news agency reported.

Jim Walden, lawyer for  Russia's former anti-doping chief-turned-whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, said the ruling provided "a very small measure of punishment for some athletes but a complete 'get out of jail free card' for most."

Walden added that Rodchenkov "testified fully and credibly" at CAS, and his evidence was verified by forensic evidence and other whistleblowers.

Russia has repeatedly denied any state involvement in the doping, which was exposed by an independent report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

CAS said its mandate was "not to determine generally whether there was an organized scheme allowing the manipulation of doping control samples... but was strictly limited to dealing with 39 individual cases and to assess the evidence applicable to each athlete on an individual basis."

A total of 43 Russian athletes were banned by the IOC. Three more are still waiting to have their appeals heard and one — bobsledder Maxim Belugin — has not appealed.

An Olympic disciplinary panel, chaired by IOC executive board member Denis Oswald, last year investigated 46 Russian athletes and found 43 guilty of complicity in a Sochi doping program. Two CAS appeal panels heard 39 of those cases last week in Geneva.

More uncertainty for IOC

The CAS judges did not agree with the IOC panels that it was proved many individuals had their steroid-tainted samples swapped for clean urine at the Sochi testing laboratory.

"The CAS required an even higher threshold on the necessary level of evidence than the Oswald commission and former CAS decisions," the IOC said Thursday.

The 28 overturned bans create more uncertainty for the IOC and winter sports governing bodies, which must assess the impact on Pyeongchang entries.

"I think that the least the IOC could do is allow them to participate," Philippe Baertsch, a lawyer for the athletes, told The Associated Press.

A team of 169 Olympic Athletes from Russia was already set to compete in South Korea after being invited by the IOC. That process involved two IOC panels assessing hundreds of Russians athletes for suspicions of doping.

The Lausanne-based IOC said it would consider challenging the CAS rulings at Switzerland's Supreme Court. However, that appeal rests on seeing the detailed reasons for the judgments, which were not published Thursday and seem unlikely to be written soon.

With files from The Canadian Press / The Associated Press