28 Russians, including medalists, have Olympic doping bans lifted

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Twenty-eight Russian athletes have had their Olympic doping bans overturned, but the International Olympic Committee said they could still be blocked from competing at this month's Pyeongchang Games.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport on Thursday was set to reinstate seven of Russia's medals from the 2014 Sochi Olympics, including gold in men's skeleton and men's 50-kilometer cross-country skiing.

Eleven more athletes were ruled to have been guilty of doping, but their lifetime bans, which an IOC disciplinary panel imposed two months ago, were reduced to a ban only from the Pyeongchang Games, which open Feb. 9.

The 28 who had their bans lifted could now seek late entry into the Pyeongchang Olympics.

"Not being sanctioned does not automatically confer the privilege of an invitation," the IOC said in a statement.

The Olympic body noted the CAS observation that its ruling "does not mean that these 28 athletes are declared innocent."

The United States Anti-Doping Agency issued a statement Thursday criticizing the IOC.

"The IOC's failure to swiftly and decisively deal will Russia's unprecedented attack on fair play has eroded public trust in the values of the Olympic movement," it read. "Slamming dozens of cases through the process on the eve of the Olympic Games has not served justice and as such the integrity of the Games has been sabotaged. The whole mess truly stinks and the nightmare continues for clean athletes. This must change."

In the urgent verdicts announced Thursday, the two CAS judging panels who heard 39 appeal cases last week in Geneva -- and took testimony from Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov -- did not give detailed reasons.

"In 28 cases, the evidence collected was found to be insufficient to establish that an anti-doping rule violation [ADRV] was committed by the athletes concerned,'' the sports court said in a statement.

CAS said it "unanimously found that the evidence put forward by the IOC in relation to this matter did not have the same weight in each individual case.''

The 11 whose appeals were rejected came from men's bobsled, women's cross-country skiing and women's ice hockey.

They included two-time bobsled gold medalist Alexander Zubkov. His retested samples had abnormal levels of salt, suggesting that steroid-tainted urine was swapped in the Sochi testing laboratory with previously stored clean urine, as Rodchenkov alleged.

Still, the CAS rulings will be seen as a victory for Russia, which has long denied it ran a state-backed doping program.

"It's a big victory for [the 28 who were cleared], and I'm relieved that justice has finally been done,'' Philippe Baertsch, a lawyer for the athletes, told the Associated Press. "This confirms what they've been saying since day one, namely that they are, and they've always been, clean athletes, and that they were wrongly sanctioned without any evidence.''

The IOC has already invited 169 Russians to the Pyeongchang Olympics under a neutral flag, but it may now be forced to allow in athletes it deems dopers eight days before the Games begin.

It wasn't immediately clear how many of the 28 Russians would now seek to compete. Some have already retired from competitive sports.

Those reinstated from the Sochi Olympics include skeleton gold medalist Alexander Tretiakov and cross-country skiing gold medalist Alexander Legkov. Russia won't win back some medals, such as in the men's four-man bobsled, where two crew members were disqualified and two were reinstated. Great Britain's upgrade to bronze in 2014 was therefore confirmed. Both of the gold medal-winning two-man bobsled crew remain banned.

The IOC last year banned 43 Russians over doping offenses at the Sochi Olympics, ruling that they had been part of a scheme to dope.

The Russian director of the laboratory that handled samples for the Sochi Games, Grigory Rodchenkov, said he gave cocktails of banned steroids to athletes and swapped tainted samples for clean urine on orders from Russian state sports officials.

The Russian government vehemently denies ever supporting doping.

Three more appeals, all involving retired biathlon competitors, will be heard later.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.