MOSCOW, Dec 7 (Reuters) - Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, who was banned for life from the Olympics this week, said Moscow would support Russian athletes who opt to compete at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics as neutrals.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) on Tuesday banned the Russian team from the Games after evidence emerged of an “unprecedented systematic manipulation” of doping procedures but left the door open for Russians to compete as neutrals if they demonstrate they have a doping-free background.
“For us the athletes’ interests have always been the priority,” TASS news agency quoted Mutko as saying late on Wednesday.
“To participate in the Olympics is an athlete’s right. We will respect it and provide full-fledged support.”
Mutko’s comments came hours after President Vladimir Putin said Russia would not prevent its athletes from competing in South Korea as neutrals.
Mutko, who served as sports minister at the time of the 2014 Sochi Games, remained tight-lipped about the decision to ban him from the Olympics.
“I don’t want to assess the IOC’s decision made regarding me,” Mutko said. “It’s not the time to think of myself.”
Russian authorities have vehemently denied any state support for doping and pledged to cooperate with international sports authorities to counter the use of banned performance-enhancing drugs.
In the weeks ahead of Tuesday’s IOC decision, more than 20 Russian athletes who competed at the Sochi Games were handed Olympic life bans for having allegedly violated anti-doping rules.
The bans came as the result of an IOC investigation into allegations of state-backed doping among Russian competitors and sample tampering by laboratory and security officials at Sochi.
Russia’s athletics federation, Paralympic Committee and anti-doping agency RUSADA remain suspended over doping scandals. (Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by John O‘Brien)