Sport‘s top court CAS on Thursday overturned Olympic life bans on 28 Russians accused of doping, a decision hailed by Moscow but a major embarrassment for the International Olympic Committee just days away from the start of the Winter Games in Pyeongchang.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that there was “insufficient” evidence that the athletes had benefited from a system of state-sponsored doping at the 2014 Winter Games, hosted by Russia.

The cleared 28, which includes Sochi cross-country gold medallist Alexander Legkov, are now eligible to compete in the Pyeongchang Olympics starting next week, but their participation is by no means certain.

“Not being sanctioned does not automatically confer the privilege of an invitation” to the 2018 Games in South Korea, the IOC explained in a statement.

Russia are banned from Pyeongchang over the doping scandal but 169 Russian competitors have been cleared to take part as neutrals.

The IOC warned that CAS’s verdict “may have a serious impact on the future fight against doping”.

“Therefore, the IOC will analyse the reasoned decisions very carefully once they are available and consider consequences, including an appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal.”

The exonerated group were among 42 Russians — bobsleighers, cross-country skiers, competitors in the skeleton and ice hockey players — to appeal their bans.

– Insufficient evidence –

In addition to clearing the 28, CAS also lifted the life bans of another 11 Russians but barred them from competing at Pyeongchang.

Delivering its judgement CAS said: “In 28 cases, the evidence collected was found to be insufficient to establish that an anti-doping rule violation was committed by the athletes concerned.

“The evidence put forward by the IOC in relation to this matter did not have the same weight in each individual case.”

CAS’s decision was warmly welcomed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We are very glad for our athletes,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

“The information about the decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport proves that energetic work to stand up for our rights in court and elsewhere — it is justified, it can be effective and it should continue,” Peskov added.

“And we are hoping that this work will certainly continue.”

He said it was unclear whether the 28 who had their appeals upheld would now compete in South Korea.

“It is a difficult question,” the Kremlin spokesman added, noting Russian officials would continue talking to the IOC.

– ‘No manipulation’ –

Meanwhile, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA expressed its “serious concern” over the CAS decision.

“WADA understands that this decision will cause dismay and frustration among athletes,” the Montreal-based organisation said in a statement.

“The Agency supports the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) intention to analyse these decisions very carefully and consider all options, including an appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal.”

Last week’s mass CAS hearings were as a result of allegations of a vast state-sponsored doping programme contained in the report into Sochi authored by sports law professor Richard McLaren for the World Anti-Doping Agency.

His explosive findings laid out the workings of the programme — from the use of secret state agents to passing urine samples out of testing labs through mouseholes.

But for Russian deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko, CAS’s ruling proved Moscow never orchestrated a state-sponsored doping programme.

“One can say that there wasn’t any system or any sort of manipulation at the Sochi Olympic Games, we’ve always said that but today the Court of Arbitration for Sport issued such a ruling,” said Mutko, who himself is appealing to CAS over his life ban.

He was banned after being singled out in McLaren’s report.

With Legkov and the other 27 having their Sochi results reinstated Russia roared back to the top of the medals table.

The Russian team initially won 33 medals in Sochi, including 13 golds, to put it ahead of Norway and Canada but they slipped to fourth after the IOC-imposed sanctions.

They reclaimed two golds, six silvers and a bronze, putting it back, in theory, on top of the 2014 medals tree.

CAS’s verdict drew a whithering response from Jim Walden, the lawyer of doping whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov.

Rodchenkov, the former head of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory, is the source of revelations on Moscow’s state-sponsored doping.

Walden told AFP the ruling was “unfortunate” and suggested it “provides a very small measure of punishment for some athletes but a complete ‘get out of jail free card’ for most”.

He added: “The CAS decision only emboldens cheaters, makes it harder for clean athletes to win, and provides yet another ill-gotten gain for the corrupt Russian doping system generally, and Putin specifically.”

And the head of the German Olympic SportsConfederation (DSOB) Alfons Hoermann described the CAS verdict as a “slap in the face of clean sports“. – Agence France-Presse

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