Despite sanctions, Richard McLaren says Russia might still have access to upcoming Winter Games

Canadian law professor Richard McLaren, who headed the independent investigation that confirmed the scope of systemic sports doping in Russia, told ESPN the sanctions on Russia announced by the International Olympic Committee this week may still enable a "vast majority" of Russian winter athletes to compete at the Pyeongchang Games.

The IOC executive board Tuesday suspended the Russian Olympic Committee, imposed a $15 million fine and barred a number of officials, including former sports minister and current deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko, from attending the Winter Games in February.

"This idea that Russia's been banned is completely wrong," McLaren told ESPN in an interview and later email exchange. "What they've done in suspending the Russian Olympic Committee is, they've taken over the [athlete] nomination process. That's a very different process than a ban of Russians from competing in the Games. Certain Russian athletes will compete with the approval of the IOC, and the IOC's got control over who's going to be approved.

"It lacks a proper assessment," McLaren said. "It smacks of being too much 'behind closed doors.' But we will have to learn what the details of the process are before passing final judgment. ... I think you'll see the vast majority of [Russian athletes] there. That'll be a test of how strong these criteria are that they're going to use to decide who goes and doesn't go.

"I think the message they're trying to send is that they've held Russia accountable for its actions, and are acting in a significant-sanction, harsh way. Now I'm beginning to think maybe it isn't all that harsh."

IOC spokesman Mark Adams told ESPN in an email that the special IOC panel will decide whether Russian athletes will apply individually or by team or sport, whether vacant competitive slots would be redistributed, and whether or not to publish the precise anti-doping criteria for vetting athletes. The word "ban" was not used in the IOC's official statement, which Adams called "detailed and clear."

The criteria for what the IOC terms an "invitation" to Pyeongchang -- as yet unspecified -- will be the focus of Russian athletes who seek to compete and those who want to make sure the standards are as stringent as possible.

Based on findings and follow-up on McLaren's World Anti-Doping Agency-commissioned report, an IOC disciplinary commission has thus far stripped 25 Russian athletes of their Sochi 2014 results based on evidence they participated in organized doping and cover-ups. Athletes who assert they were not part of that system will be vetted by an IOC-appointed panel whose full membership has not yet been announced, using criteria that were broadly defined in the announcement.

McLaren's perspective was echoed by IOC member Adam Pengilly of Great Britain, a two-time Olympic skeleton racer and member of the WADA Athlete Committee.

"I don't like the probable scenario," he told ESPN. "There was a not-unreasonable argument that the whole Russian team should have been banned. Meanwhile, there was also a reasonable argument that those athletes who provided sound evidence they are clean should be allowed to compete as neutrals. The latter was my position for both Pyeongchang and Tokyo [2020] given the gravity of the deceit and deception, which covered Summer and Winter Games."

Pengilly now foresees the prospect of a large Russian athlete delegation entered in Pyeongchang whose designation -- "OAR," for "Olympic Athlete from Russia" -- is not truly neutral. The IOC also said the ROC's suspension could be lifted as early as the start of the closing ceremony in Pyeongchang, which doesn't sit well with Pengilly after "years of manipulation of sport, massive fraud, directed from government, the peak of which was sample swapping at the [Sochi] Games."

"If an athlete did anything like that, they'd get at least a four-year suspension and there would be a case for life [a lifetime ban]," Pengilly said. "But a country gets less than three months and is then given a global platform -- hardly a deterrent. And athletes are supposed to be the heart of the movement. I'm not sure the silent majority [of athletes] will see it that way.

"In my eyes, 'OAR' on its own might just be acceptable, but if the word 'Russia' appears on the uniform, it will not go down well with the majority of the world's athletes. What I think is shocking is that there's a significant possibility that they'll be changing into their Russian uniforms [at the closing ceremony], the flag will be flying, and they'll march in as one team."

In an Instagram post, IOC member and double Olympic champion pole vaulter Yelena Isinbaeva urged athletes, coaches and fans to focus on the OAR designation and possible lifting of the suspension for the closing ceremony as "spoons of honey" in the decision. "[The athletes] are not neutral, they are from Russia and this will be said everywhere ... everyone will know which country they will represent," she wrote, according to Instagram's auto-translation.

"Second, what we have to do under the flag of the IOC and without the Russian anthem is very sad, but if you look a little further and deeper, then at the time of closure all our winners and medalists will be able to wear Olympic gear and carry their tricolor."

Isinbaeva called the situation "very difficult, unfair, but in my opinion, it is acceptable."

Billionaire Alisher Usmanov, president of fencing's international governing body and an Arsenal shareholder, wrote to Bach and the executive board saying the IOC had gone too far. In a letter forwarded to media by a communications firm, Usmanov argued the IOC's decision "certainly does put clean Russian athletes on an uneven playing field with athletes from other countries" because of the wait involved in the extra vetting from the IOC panel and the barring of their flag and anthem at competitive events.

"This approach violates the basic human rights and undermines the trust in law and justice," Usmanov wrote. "Athletes dedicate their rather short life in sport for this one moment when they can see their country's flag in the sky and hear the sound of their national anthem."

Some anti-doping executives and athlete leaders this week publicly called for the IOC to require proof that Russian athletes asking to compete in Pyeongchang have been strenuously tested outside the country's system and are unconnected to any coaches or programs implicated in McLaren's report.

One potential issue in putting together standards is the fact that Russian authorities still have not complied with WADA's demand that they turn over stored samples in the Moscow laboratory -- potentially important evidence in reviewing individual athletes. An electronic database from the Moscow lab that spans the years 2012 to 2015, which is currently being analyzed by WADA, is expected to be available to the IOC and sports federations next week.

The Russian Anti-Doping Agency has not been fully reinstated since it was suspended in late 2015 by WADA because of gaps in its "road map" to compliance. During a transitional period overseen by the UK Anti-Doping Agency, domestic testing of Russian athletes was hampered by several issues, including locating or accessing them. That could affect out-of-competition testing histories for some athletes.

International winter sports federations don't have the task of clearing athletes, but they're still faced with decisions on whether to suspend Russian teams and officials and relocate events. The International Biathlon Union's executive board will meet Saturday to discuss options regarding one of the sports most deeply and historically touched by doping.

Skiing's international governing body, FIS, has not yet scheduled a meeting of its council, a delay U.S. Ski and Snowboard CEO Tiger Shaw called "absolutely unacceptable," adding that at a bare minimum, federation leadership should debate suspension of the Russian ski federation for multiple anti-doping violations, a sanction allowed by FIS rules.

In a statement on the FIS website, the federation said it "will evaluate the reports of the IOC Schmid Disciplinary Commission and WADA's Intelligence & Investigation Department relating to its findings from Moscow Laboratory's Information Management System (LIMS) database that will be provided on 14th December. Thereafter further steps by the FIS Doping Panel and FIS Council with respect to the participation of Russian cross country athletes will be addressed."