MOSCOW — When the International Olympic Committee board prepares to vote Tuesday on whether to ban Russia from February’s Winter Olympics, its members will decide the fate of numerous medals yet to be won.
If there’s a blanket ban on Russia for its doping offenses at the 2014 Olympics — or restrictions that prompt Russia to boycott the 2018 Games — it could mean the end of compelling storylines and a slide into irrelevance for the men’s hockey tournament.
Gracenote Sports, which forecasts a “virtual medal table” based on recent results, predicts Russia will win 21 medals, six of them gold, if it competes in Pyeongchang.
That puts Russia eighth on predicted gold medals, or joint fifth on total medals. If Russia is banned, opportunities open up for many other countries.
Here is a look at more possible consequences.
HOCKEY IN JEOPARDY
The men’s hockey tournament at the next Winter Olympics is already the first without the NHL’s participation since 1994, but banning Russia could diminish it even further.
The Moscow-based Kontinental Hockey League is widely considered the world’s second-strongest league, and it’s threatening to withdraw all its players from the Olympics if Russia is banned.
Russia would otherwise be the gold medal favorite thanks to ex-NHL players like Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, who now play in the KHL.
The U.S., Canada and other countries also plan to use KHL players, so losing them could deal a heavy blow to the audience figures of a tournament that’s already struggling to attract attention.
The International Ice Hockey Federation called Tuesday for “full participation of all clean Russian athletes,” saying that punishing Russia too harshly would put “the health of ice hockey at risk.”
A Russia ban could also cause a backlash against athletes perceived to benefit.
Gabriela Koukalova of the Czech Republic, one of the biggest names in biathlon, called for a ban on Russia on her Facebook page last week, only to be deluged with hundreds of insults in English and Russian.
Alongside sexist putdowns, some suggested Koukalova — who is in line to pick up a relay bronze from 2014 due to a Russian disqualification — wouldn’t be safe if she competes in Russia again.
The issue of Russian doping has caused rifts between athletes, too.
During February’s world biathlon championships, French athlete Martin Fourcade walked off the podium when the Russian mixed relay team — which included an athlete newly returned from a doping ban — was awarded its medals.
One of Pyeongchang’s most compelling storylines depends on Russia taking part.
Viktor Ahn was a star speedskater for South Korea under the name Ahn Hyun-soo, winning three Olympic gold medals, but his career seemed finished when he failed to make the team for Vancouver in 2010.
Ahn then stunned skating fans by switching to Russia and winning three more gold medals in Sochi.
His return home to South Korea in a Russian uniform for the Pyeongchang Olympics is hotly anticipated.
With no Russians, the Nordic events would be shaken up.
Cross-country skier Sergei Ustyugov won two gold and three silver medals at February’s world championships in a compelling rivalry with Norwegian Martin Johnsrud Sundby.
If he’s absent from Pyeongchang, that opens up opportunities for the Norwegians, plus countries like Finland, Italy and Canada.
The United States is hunting its first ever women’s cross-country medal, an easier task if Russia isn’t there.
The absence of Russia’s top biathlete, Anton Shipulin, would help Germany and France’s medal chances.
YOUNG STARS BARRED
A blanket ban for offenses from 2014 inevitably hits athletes who weren’t part of any doping system.
There’s been no suggestion of any wrongdoing by reigning two-time world figure skating champion Evgenia Medvedeva — not least because she was just 14 years old in February 2014.
Medvedeva’s teammate Alina Zagitova, also a medal contender for Pyeongchang, was just 11 during Sochi.
Sports like figure skating and curling have seen some accusations of wrongdoing by athletes around the time of the Sochi Olympics, but no cases have resulted in bans.
The only figure skater so far to have faced an IOC disciplinary panel, 2014 gold medalist Adelina Sotnikova, was cleared.
The IOC has never before imposed a blanket ban for doping and refused to do so for last year’s Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Instead, the IOC passed the decision to the various sports federations, resulting in Russia being kicked out of track and field — except for one athlete — and weightlifting, but allowing Russia to field full teams in many sports.
The Winter Olympics are different, not least because the most serious allegations against Russian officials relate to its hosting of the last Winter Games in Sochi in 2014.
The IOC has already banned 25 individual Russians for doping in Sochi. Even if the Russian team competes, those 25 won’t be there unless they can overturn those bans on appeal.
Besides a blanket ban, the IOC could also force Russians to compete as neutrals, without their flag or anthem.
Neutral status has been used before when a country is under United Nations sanctions — like Yugoslavia in 1992 during the conflict there — or last year when Kuwait was suspended by the IOC due to government interference in sports. The Kuwaitis were officially known as “Independent Olympic Athletes.”
A similar approach was used for Russia at this year’s world track championships, but it often seemed to draw extra attention to the Russians who competed. As “neutral” high jumper Ilya Ivanyuk said, “everyone knows where we’re from.”
Russian authorities fiercely oppose neutral status as a symbolic humiliation but have stopped short of saying they would boycott the Olympics if it came to pass. For many of Russia’s critics, taking away the flag does nothing to remove questionable Russian competitors.
Story: James Ellingworth