Friday, February 22, 2002
Putin: North Americans have 'clear advantage'
SALT LAKE CITY -- Russia announced Friday it will stay at the Olympics, withdrawing a threat to walk out of the Salt Lake City Winter Games over alleged "judging bias" against its athletes.
The decision ended 24 hours of political tension between the Russian federation and the International Olympic Committee.
"We will stay at the games," said Guennadi Shvets, a Russian delegation spokesman. He said the decision was made before a meeting between high-level Russian officials and IOC President Jacques Rogge.
"Everybody understood we had to stay," Shvets said.
Early Friday, the Olympic controversy escalated further, with Russia demanding a gold medal for figure skater Irina Slutskaya after American Sarah Hughes edged her for gold. The request was denied.
The Russians warned that its hockey players had better be treated fairly in a crucial game against the United States. The U.S. team beat Russia 3-2 late Friday.
After the game, Russian coach Slava Fetisov criticized the officiating and the agreement that puts NHL referees in Olympic hockey games. Every U.S. goal came with the Russians playing a man down because of penalties.
"There's not much you can do about it right now," said Fetisov. "An agreement's been signed that is designed to have a final between Canada and the USA. You have this final, you have NHL referees. ... They live here and they know the North American players."
The Russians also protested the disqualification of star cross-country skier Larissa Lazutina following a pre-race blood test, and the judging at the women's figure skating final.
On Thursday, Russian indignation spread all the way to the Kremlin, where President Vladimir Putin suggested there was a reason Americans were doing so well in the games -- they had the judges on their side.
"North American athletes receive a clear advantage," Putin said.
The IOC has tried to assuage the Russians, with Rogge writing a letter to Putin.
Rogge also went to the Olympic Russia House on Friday to discuss the issue.
Shvets said the IOC will further discuss the Russia protests Saturday.
At one stage Thursday, the Russians said they also might not attend the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
"Without Russia, the Olympic Games will be lost," said Vitaly Smirnov, an IOC vice president from Russia.
Shvets said Thursday's reaction was "more emotional" after the Lazutina disqualification. The lower house of Russia's parliament passed a resolution calling on Russian athletes to boycott the closing ceremonies Sunday unless Olympic officials rerun the cross-country relay, bar North American referees from Friday's hockey semifinal between Russia and the United States and apologize to the Russian Olympic team. The resolution was approved 417-0.
"Russian athletes are practically being mocked today. It's an attempt to discredit Russian sports and oust Russian athletes from the sports arena," said Alexei Volin, deputy chief of staff of the Russian Cabinet.