* Russians want to march with national flag at closing ceremony
* IOC members against reinstating Russia are in minority - sources
* Russia would see a return of Olympic status as vindication
* Russian curler agrees to return medal in doping case
* Russia Olympic committee pays $15 mln for anti-doping efforts (Adds Russia making $15 million payment)
By Karolos Grohmann
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea, Feb 22 (Reuters) - The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is edging closer to allowing Russia to march behind their national flag at the Winter Games closing ceremony, sources said, in a move Moscow hopes will mark the end of its ostracism from world sport.
Sources familiar with the matter at the Pyeongchang Games, where Russians are competing as neutral athletes under the Olympic flag, said only a minority of IOC officials did not want to restore Russia’s national status for the ceremony on Sunday.
A decision to reinstate Russia would likely face criticism from international athletes and anti-doping officials, given Russia was hit by a fresh doping scandal only this week at Pyeongchang, involving a medal-winning curler.
But in Russia, it would be perceived as a powerful symbol of its rehabilitation as an Olympic nation and as a vindication of its stance that it was unfairly targeted by doping accusations.
“There is a group within the IOC who do not want them to come back for the closing ceremony and obviously the doping case in curling is not good for Russia,” one source said.
“But I think this group is a minority and it is relatively small.”
Some IOC members have privately argued the curling case is a minor infringement that alone does not warrant excluding Russia from flying the Russian flag in the ceremony, sources said.
The IOC declined to comment.
The IOC decided to ban Russia from competing as a nation at Pyeongchang in December when it also suspended its national Olympic committee. But it offered to lift that suspension and drop the neutrality condition for the closing ceremony provided Russians observed a strict code of conduct during the Games.
The IOC is eager to normalise Russia’s Olympic status because it one of the world’s largest Olympic committees and a sporting powerhouse, but the IOC is made up of 100 equal members with competing agendas and the consensus could shift right up to the decision, which is expected at the weekend.
In an extremely rare move for Russia, curler Alexander Krushelnitsky, who tested positive for a banned drug, agreed this week to return his medal before a sanction had been issued.
In another sign of the unusually harmonious way in which the case has been handled, a hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport was cancelled at the request of all parties involved and the court speedily handed down a guilty verdict.
The IOC’s executive board will meet on Saturday to receive the report of a panel it had set up to assess Russia’s adherence to the Pyeongchang code of conduct. On Sunday, before the closing ceremony, a full IOC session will discuss the report.
In December, the IOC also fined Russia $15 million over the doping allegations. The Russian Olympic committee said on Thursday it had now paid that sum and that it would help develop international anti-doping efforts.
Aside from simply lifting or not lifting Russia’s suspension, the IOC could opt for a conditional reinstatement.
IOC President Thomas Bach briefly met Igor Levitin, vice-president of the Russian Olympic Committee, on Wednesday night but did not discuss the closing ceremony, IOC spokesman Mark Adams said, describing it as a “four-minute” courtesy encounter.
The IOC’s Olympic Games executive director, Christophe Dubi, told Reuters last week, prior to the fresh doping case, that in his daily meetings with organisers and federations there had been no mention of Russian infringements of the code of conduct.
No Russian flags have been waved on the field of play, and athletes have avoided public criticism of the IOC’s rules on neutrality and its ban on many individual Russian athletes.
The IOC’s handling of Russian doping has been sharply criticised, especially after it allowed Russia to compete at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics. Anti-doping agencies from the United States, Canada and Germany had wanted them banned.
Calls for an outright ban at the Pyeongchang Games grew louder in recent months after the IOC stripped several Russian medals and banned dozens of athletes from the Games for life for doping at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
Instead, the IOC invited 169 carefully selected Russian athletes with no doping history to compete in South Korea. As neutrals, they are unable to use any national symbols or have their anthem played at medal presentations. They also underwent increased drug testing at Pyeongchang, the IOC said.
“Having a Russian athlete test positive is not a good thing. In this particular situation where they were under a microscope it raises questions,” American Angela Ruggiero, head of the IOC’s athletes commission, said of the curler’s doping case.
Within the IOC, only one of its members, Britain’s Adam Pengilly, voted against decisions to admit Russia to the Rio Games and allow them to compete as neutrals at Pyeongchang.
But Pengilly left the Games last week after he was involved in an altercation with a security guard at the IOC hotel and will not be able to vote in the decision on Russia’s status.
Russia, once a winter sports powerhouse, have won only a trickle of medals and none of them gold until Thursday morning, and are in 20th place in the medals standings, behind countries such as Poland, Ukraine and even Britain. (Editing by Mark Bendeich)