Olympics-Putin hosts Russians heading to Tokyo Games without flag, anthem

MOSCOW, June 30 (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin hosted Russian athletes heading to the Tokyo Olympics at the Kremlin on Wednesday, wishing them medals and vowing to protect their rights as they are set to compete without their flag and anthem because of doping sanctions.

Russian athletes are barred from competing at major international events, including the Olympics, with their flag and anthem until late 2022. More than 330 Russians will compete in Tokyo under the name “ROC”, an acronym for the Russian Olympic Committee.

“The rights and interests of its athletes must be protected from any arbitrariness, including from decisions that individual countries are trying to impose around the world, far beyond their national jurisdictions,” Putin told athletes at a ceremony at the Kremlin. “I ask colleagues from specialized bodies to pay special attention to this.”

“All of Russia will be cheering for you. I wish you great victories, and an honourable and fair competition.”

The ban, initially imposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) but later halved to two years after an appeal, is designed to punish Moscow for providing global anti-doping authorities with doctored laboratory data that could have helped identify drug cheats.

“It happened that we will have to perform without the Russian flag, without the Russian anthem that we could sing loudly and in unison,” synchronized swimmer Svetlana Romashina said at the ceremony. “But the most important thing is that Russian fans and fans from all over the world know which country we represent.”

Russians in Tokyo will be wearing blue, red and white uniforms, but their country’s tricolour flag will not appear as such.

Instead of having their anthem played on the podium, Russian gold medal winners in Tokyo will hear music by composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Many Russian athletes were sidelined from the past two Olympics, and the country’s flag was banned at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games as punishment for state-sponsored doping at the 2014 Sochi Games.

Russia has acknowledged some shortcomings in its implementation of anti-doping policies but denies running a state-sponsored doping programme. (Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; editing by Jonathan Oatis)