MOSCOW — A new generation of young, talented and, above all, clean Russian athletes will compete at next month's Pyeongchang Olympics, according to Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko.
The Russians must compete under the Olympic flag in South Korea after the International Olympic Committee ruled the country operated a sophisticated doping and cover-up program when it hosted the 2014 Sochi Games.
Mutko — who was sports minister at the time — has been banned from the Olympics for life along with 43 athletes, though he and all but one of the athletes have filed appeals.
Those bans, which include 14 medalists, have helped clear the way for younger talent in Russia, Mutko said. While there would usually be about 40 percent changeover in the Russian team between Olympics, he said, this time 80 percent of athletes will not have competed in Sochi.
"In practically every event it's an absolutely new, young team," Mutko said in an interview Saturday in a VIP box at the European figure skating championships in Moscow.
Although Mutko is no longer sports minister, he is still in overall charge of sports policy and the government's preparations for soccer's World Cup.
Despite the Olympic bans, Russian officials expect about 200 athletes to compete in Pyeongchang, though not all would have normally been the country's first choice. That's fewer than in Sochi in 2014, but more than in Vancouver in 2010.
It's not yet clear which Russians will go to the Olympics — where they will compete as "Olympic Athletes from Russia" because the country's team is formally banned. The IOC is vetting lists of athletes submitted by Russian officials before issuing invitations.
"In every sport we have a lot of interesting young athletes with potential and we hope they can realize their potential," Mutko said. "We'd like them to compete in equal conditions. We're trying to abstract them from all these political scandals, though it's extremely difficult because we see the date on the calendar and it's not clear if (a particular athlete) is going to the Olympics or not, because each of them needs to receive an invitation."
Mutko said Russia's young "stars who could break through" in Pyeongchang include 15-year-old European figure skating champion Alina Zagitova, ski jumper Sofia Tikhonova and speedskater Pavel Kulizhnikov.
So far, the IOC says it has cut a preliminary list of 500 down to 389, but hasn't revealed names.
It's likely that any decision will be followed by a rush of last-minute appeals by athletes who aren't invited, particularly because the IOC wants to exclude all Russians with previous doping offenses — potentially including Kulizhnikov — not just the 43 banned from Sochi. Mutko said that condition had been added "absolutely illegally."
He said the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is hearing various Russian appeals, was biased toward the Olympic officials and the World Anti-Doping Agency.
"It's basically tame for the IOC and WADA. It's tame," he said, adding that Russia still rejected the findings of IOC and WADA investigations which detailed widespread doping. "Why does everyone tell us to accept the report? We won't accept any report."
The Russian government insists it never supported dopers or covered up for them. Mutko painted WADA's star witness, former Moscow and Sochi laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov, as untrustworthy and erratic, and said the Russian government wasn't responsible for any malpractice in the state-funded Sochi drug-testing lab during the Olympics. Instead, he laid the blame at the feet of the IOC and WADA.
"I look at the ruling on myself and ... I don't understand it. I'm being accused of being a minister who did not ensure quality anti-doping at the Olympics. But I wasn't supposed to do that. It's their work, understand?" Mutko said, blaming WADA. "They didn't control a damn thing — excuse me — and what, should we answer for that?"
Ahead of last month's IOC decision to force Russians to compete under a neutral flag, some officials said that option would not be acceptable. However, "no boycotts ... were ever considered," Mutko said Saturday.
Russian athletes are appealing against certain conditions of eligibility, but no appeal has been filed by Russia against the central point of the IOC sanctions, banning the Russian team from competing with its own flag and anthem. Mutko said that was because he believed the Court of Arbitration for Sport would dismiss any appeal.
Mutko's position as deputy prime minister gives him oversight of all government sports policy in a country with a vast state-run system of sports academies and where most top coaches are government employees. However, he has taken a step back in recent months, leaving his posts as president of the Russian Football Union and chairman of the organizing committee for the World Cup.
Mutko said he continues to have a key role overseeing the government's multi-billion-dollar investments in World Cup stadiums and infrastructure. Leaving the organizing committee, he said, was simply "not to give any extra reason" for criticism of Russia from abroad.
"In the government now, the president and prime minister, they've decided that I will continue to do all of this and finish this project," Mutko said. "So we're doing it and everything will be at a high organizational level. I'm absolutely sure."