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Just one Russian track athlete is set for Rio Olympics, with no Russian flag

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Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

(Read caption) Darya Klishina competes at the Russian track and field championship in June 2016. Ms. Klishina will likely be the only Russian track athlete to compete at the Olympics in August.

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It’s likely 11 athletes will walk out at the Olympics’ opening ceremony in Rio de Janiero under a neutral, Olympic flag, with its five colored rings, instead of their own countries’ flags. Ten of these athletes are refugees who fled their war-torn homes to live and train abroad. The other is one of two Russian athletes who escaped a state-sponsored doping scandal.

Long jumper Darya Klishina was approved by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Sunday to compete independent of Russia at international competitions that include the Olympics, subject to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) accepting its decision. The IAAF Doping Review Board found Ms. Klishina, who trains at a Florida sports academy, “meets the exceptional eligibility criteria” because she proved she was not involved in the scandal, and was subjected to drug tests outside of Russia.  

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If Klishina competes in the Olympics, she will likely become the first athlete whose country was banned from the competition because of a doping scandal to compete as a neutral athlete there.  

Klishina was thrilled she will just have the chance to jump.

“I am really happy,” she wrote Monday on her Facebook page Monday, thanking the IMG Academy she trains at for creating the “best possible, safe, and clean environment for me.”

Klishina is, in fact, one of two Russians the IAAF exempted from the ban, although she will likely be the country’s only track and field athlete to compete at the Olympics. The other athlete is runner Yuliya Stepanova, who informed the World Anti Doping Agency of the systematic, state-sponsored doping within the country. It’s unclear, however, if Ms. Stepanova will be physically able to run, after she was injured at the European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam last week.

In addition to Klishina and Stepanova, 134 other Russians appealed the IAAF ban, the organization said Sunday, in the press release that announced Klishina's exemption.

Klishina's best performance at a senior global event was fourth at the world indoor championships in Istanbul in 2012, according to Reuters. She finished seventh twice at the world outdoor championships.

Besides walking out under the white-and-ringed Olympic flag, Klishina will hear the “Olympic Hymn,” not the national anthem of Russia, if she podiums. These procedures would apply to the 10 other neutral athletes too, although they will compete under the first ever Team of Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA). All verified by the United Nations as holding refugee status, the athletes hail from Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and South Sudan, according to PRI.  

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The system of independent Olympic athletes was established in 1992, according to Olympic historian and founding member of the International Society of Olympics Historians, Bill Mallon. Individuals who competed independently in the past typically did so due to war or political sanctions in their countries, Mr. Mallon told PRI. The first time was in 1992, to allow Yugoslav athletes to compete despite a team ban due to sanctions associated with the Balkan war. Indian athletes competed in the 2014 Winter Olympics, when their country was suspended due to problems with its electoral process.

As Klishina and an injured Stepanova prepare for the Olympics, other Russian track and field athletes are awaiting an appeals ruling by an international court. On July 21, the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration of Sport is expected to rule on Russia’s appeal of the IAAF and IOC bans.

Russia was accused last November by the World Anti-Doping Agency of a state-sponsored doping program. After having months to reform its doping culture, Russia was again charged by WADA in June of systemic doping and cover-ups, with the IAAF extending the ban.

Yelena Isinbayeva, a Russian pole vaulter and two-time Olympic gold medalist, said the IAAF board's decision was just "empty words," according to the Associated Press.

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, in his call for the IAAF to be disbanded, spoke of the commitment athletes must have to their sports to reach the Olympics, according to the Associated Press.  

"People have been dedicating themselves to sport for decades, and the IAAF has been making money from them, selling commercial rights, and now this is how it behaves," Mutko told the Tass state news agency.


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