It’s been six years since the Russian flag and national anthem were banned from the Olympics after the World Anti-Doping Agency uncovered Russia’s state-sponsored doping scheme. Although, this has hardly prevented Russian athletes from competing in international sports competitions.

The International Olympic Committee created a way for some Russians to compete as “Authorized Neutral Athletes.” As ANA’s, Russian athletes are not allowed to show their national pride.  Instead of sporting the traditional bold red, white and blue, they must compete under the Olympics’ neutral white flag with five interlaced rings.

World Athletics (formerly the International Association of Athletics Federations) has been vetting Russian athletes since 2017. This allowed many to participate in major sports competitions dating back to the 2017 World Championships in Athletics in London. This is happening despite the Russian Athletics Federation’s suspension from international sports which doesn’t end until December 2022. Until then, Russia can not officially send their athletes to compete in major sporting events.

Even though Russia has a little less than a year left in their suspension from international athletics, the question of neutral athletes is an interesting one. Some may argue neutral status is fair because it allows clean athletes to compete in their events. Others might say a ban is a ban and there shouldn’t be any exceptions to the rule. For the athletes caught up in the doping mess without any control over the sanctions or the World Athletics eligibility requirements, it is safe to say they are just lucky to even get a shot.

While the suspension is still in effect, the World Athletics Doping Review Board has approved 22 Russian athletes to compete in international track and field events this year under the coveted neutral status. Among the group are several female athletes including Olympic high jump champion Mariya Lasitskene and silver medalist pole vaulter Anzhelika Sidorova. Both women along with the other 20 athletes on the list had to undergo recent drug tests and examinations into potential past drug use to be selected.

Lasitskene and Sidorova were also among the small list of Russian track and field athletes authorized to compete in the Tokyo Olympics under a neutral status. Lasitskene has proved herself repeatedly as the three-time world champion in high jump before earning gold in Tokyo. Although competing as a neutral the past few years has proved to be frustrating for the world champion who has no history of drug use.

She has continued to express her disapproval with Russia’s handling of the doping scandal.  “Cleaning up your own house would help, to put order in the federation, the national team,”  Lasitskene told Reuters.

Sidorova on the other hand doesn’t seem to be as bothered by the scandal. After winning gold in women’s pole vault at the 2019 World Athletics Championships, she celebrated despite the evident absence of her country’s flag. “I was just so happy that I didn’t really think about  it…Gold is gold,” Sidorova told Reuters.

World Athletics is expected to approve more applications this year for Russian athletes to compete. Right now, the Russian Federation may choose 20 athletes who will be granted eligibility to compete in the following international competitions:

(a) the World Athletics Race Walking Team Championship to be held in Muscat, OMA, in March 2022;

(b) the World Athletics Indoor Championships to be held in Belgrade, SRB, in March 2022;

(c) the World Athletics Championships to be held in Oregon, USA, in July 2022;

(d) the European Championships to be held in Munich, GER, in August 2022;

(e) the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships to be held in Yangzhou, CHN, in November 2022;

(f) the European Cross-Country Championships to be held in Turin, ITA, in December 2022.

With Lasitskene and Sidorova being among the selected group of athletes cleared for neutral status, this is just in time for the former to defend her indoor world championship title at the upcoming World Athletics Indoor Championships in Belgrade, Serbia.

In the meantime, the winter Olympics are kicking off this Friday and some Russian athletes are pulling out before the games even start. Biathlete Valeria Vasnetsova will not participate in the games after contracting Covid-19.

Vasnetsova who is currently under quarantine expressed her disappointment at missing the games. “Unfortunately, my Olympic dream will remain just a dream. Maybe one day I will find the strength to rise again but it will be a completely different story,” she wrote on social media.

Vasnetsova is one out many athletes who will miss the chance to compete in their events including Russian skeleton athletes Nikita Tregubov and Vladislav Semenov who both tested positive for the virus.