With the Olympics underway, there’s already hot competition and more than a little confusion.Â
Commentators keep mentioning Russian athletes, but weren’t they banned? And who is this team OAR that keeps cropping up and winning medals? What’s the deal?Â
Team OAR stands for “Olympic Athletes From Russia,” a group of 169 athletes from Russia who are competing under the Olympic flag rather than representing Russia as a country.
While it’s a bit unusual, a move like this isn’t unprecedented. But there hasn’t really been a situation like 2018 before, with so many athletes competing under the Olympic flag, and all from a country that’s usually a big-time competitor at the Games.Â
So let’s untangle things a bit.
The Russian Doping Scandal
How did we get to this point? The TL;DR of it is doping. Reports of doping by the Russians first surfaced in late 2015 and lingered throughout 2016, including one from the New York Times. The news resulted in more than 100 Russian athletes being barred from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.Â
Then, in December 2016, WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency) dropped a massive bomb of a report that uncovered evidence that Russian athletes had been doping for international competition for years.Â
The McLaren Report, named after investigator Richard McLaren, claimed that an “institutional conspiracy” had been set up within Russia involving the Ministry of Sport, Russia’s own anti-doping agency, and even the FSB (Federal Security Service), the country’s primary intelligence and security agency.Â
The report said that between 2011 and 2015, Russia’s doping scheme (which included swapping urine samples) was used at events like the 2012 Summer Olympics, the 2013 IAAF World Championships, and the 2014 Winter Olympics with over 1,000 athletes participating.Â
Russia (Sorta) Banned From 2018 Olympics
About a year later, on December 5, 2017, the International Olympic Committee announced that Russia was banned as a team from the Pyeonchang Olympics: no flag, no athlete, no government officials in attendance. Russian athletes cleared to participate via appeals would be allowed to do so under the Olympic flag.Â
As the Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang crept closer, many Russian athletes found themselves cleared to participate in the 2018 games. The IOC had determined it wouldn’t be fair to punish clean athletes for the sins of the offenders.Â
Instead, the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” (OAR) designation would suffice.Â
In the week leading up to the opening of the 2018 Olympics, even more Russian athletes found themselves cleared to participate, leading to a lot of confusion over how so many Russians would wind up competing despite all the tough talk from the IOC. Ultimately, the IOC decided not to invite that final group of cleared athletes.Â
While the 169 Russians cleared for Pyeongchang is down from the Russian delegation at the home country Sochi Olympics in 2014 (when 232 athletes competed for the country), it’s only a few less than the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics Russian team (177 athletes).Â
So. Despite a widespread scandal that covered multiple Olympics and other international competitions, Russia still has one of the biggest delegations at the 2018 Olympics competing as independent athletes who just so happen to be from Russia, in the IOC’s eyes.Â
According to the Olympics website, only the U.S. and Canada will have more athletes competing than OAR.Â
With a handful of medals already under their belt, Team OAR is expected to continue to rack up even more, including being the favorite to win the high-profile men’s ice hockey gold.
A History of Competing Under the Olympic Flag
This isn’t the first time athletes have competed under the Olympic flag. Nor is it the first time Russian athletes have done so. For both the Winter and Summer Olympics in 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a dozen of the newly-independent states made up the Unified Team.
At the 2016 Summer Olympics, a pair of Kuwaiti athletes won medals as Independent Olympic Athletes after they were allowed to compete despite the country’s Olympic committee being suspended by the IOC due to “government interference.”
And, of course, don’t get Team OAR confused with Team ROA from the 2016 Rio Olympics. Team ROA was the much-celebrated Team Refugee Olympic Athletes, 10 men and women who came from embattled nations like South Sudan and Syria to compete, as much a feel-good story as the Russian story is a feel-meh story.
Team ROA marched in the Opening Ceremony and competed under the Olympic flag and would have heard the Olympic anthem had they won any gold medals. They didn’t, though that hardly diminishes their inclusion.Â
The IOC chose not to form a refugee team for Pyeongchangm but hasn’t closed the door to one in the future.
There’s no decision yet about what will happen for Russia at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, but given that the IOC found a way to let Russian athletes into the 2018 Games, you have to figure something will be worked out in the next two years.