Will they go?
Will Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and the rest of the Russian hockey team consent to pulling on a sweater featuring the Olympic rings rather than one of their own? Will they even be allowed to?
There was considerable doubt on Tuesday afternoon in the wake of a ruling from the International Olympic Committee that Russian athletes will have to compete as neutrals at the Pyeongchang Games in February. No hockey players were named directly in the reports about that country’s state-sponsored doping program ahead of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but the IOC felt compelled to impose sanctions across all sports because the violations were deemed so brazen.
"This has caused unprecedented damage to Olympism and to sport," Samuel Schmid, who led the IOC commission into the allegations, told a news conference in Lausanne, Switzerland.
What it will do to the men’s and women’s hockey tournaments remains to be seen.
The International Ice Hockey Federation said it would need to consider the fallout before commenting on the IOC’s decision. No doubt IIHF president Rene Fasel will spend the hours and days ahead consulting with officials from the KHL and Russian Ice Hockey Federation.
(KHL president Dmitry Chernyshenko was removed from the co-ordinating commission for the 2022 Beijing Games as part of Tuesday’s sanctions after serving as CEO of the Sochi organizing campaign).
The initial feeling from international hockey sources was that Russia was unlikely to agree to participate in the event as a neutral, but no official reaction has come from that country so far.
Thomas Bach, the IOC’s president, told reporters that he didn’t expect the decision to be met with a boycott from Russian athletes.
"First of all, an Olympic boycott has never achieved anything," said Bach. "Secondly, I don’t see any reason there for a boycott by the Russian athletes because we allowed the clean Russian athletes to participate, and to show there are clean athletes in Russia. In this way we think that these clean Russian athletes can be more about building a bridge into the future of a cleaner sport than erecting a new wall between Russia and the Olympic movement."
If the hockey players end up going to South Korea, they’ll compete under the acronym "OAR" – Olympic Athletes from Russia. Any national symbols and the Russian anthem won’t be permitted at the Games.
The ramifications on the men’s side of the draw could stretch well beyond Russian borders.
In recent weeks, the KHL has threatened to rework its schedule and not let athletes from any country leave their teams for an Olympic break. With NHL players already ruled out of the event, Hockey Canada is looking at bringing as many as 15 players from the Russian-based league to the Games.
There’s been enough concern that Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney recently signed off on a letter urging the KHL to rethink its stance. Officials from the Swedish, Finnish and Czech federations co-signed as well.
Following a meeting of the IIHF Council last week, Fasel released a statement in support of Russian hockey players: "Although we recognize the need to confront doping in sport, Olympic participation should not be used to sanction the many for the actions of the few. In addition, the extent to which the IOC is seeking punitive measures in the case of Russia is putting the health of ice hockey at risk.
"Russia’s role in the growth and development of ice hockey cannot be understated. This country forms a pillar on which our sport’s legacy rests upon."
As we await word on how the Russian hockey players will proceed, it’s worth mentioning how vehemently patriotic they are.
Datsyuk captained the team in Sochi despite dealing with a significant groin injury, and left the Detroit Red Wings in a lurch by returning home mid-contract to play for SKA St. Petersburg last year.
Kovalchuk "retired" from the New Jersey Devils in 2013 and is now in his fifth KHL season. He’s answered the call from the national team at every turn – competing in four Olympics and 10 IIHF World Hockey Championships. It’s little wonder since the first line of a training journal he kept as a child read: "Our goal is always the Russian national team."
Players from that country have won gold under a neutral flag before – the Unified Team beat Team Canada at the 1992 Albertville Games, following the breakup of the Soviet Union – but the circumstances are completely different now.
This decision was imposed on them from above.
This was going to be Russia’s best chance to step back atop the Olympic podium in men’s hockey, but if there’s no flag-raising or anthem played afterwards, is it even worth showing up?