NHL's Ovechkin, Kuznetsov support Russian athletes

(Reuters) - Russian Washington Capitals players Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov will support any of their countrymen who chose compete at the Winter Olympics despite an IOC decision banning Russia from the Games, they said on Wednesday.

The International Olympic Committee on Tuesday announced it would bar the Russian team from February’s Games in Pyeongchang due to widespread doping violations but would permit individual Russian athletes to compete under a neutral flag.

Asked whether Russian hockey players should participate in the Games or boycott them, Ovechkin said the athletes should compete.

“I support them,” Ovechkin told reporters on Wednesday.

“I woke up today and some guys in Russia said we should back out. But I never said that and I support the hockey team’s decision,” he said.

“I‘m pretty sure they are going and I‘m going to cheer for them.”

Under the IOC ruling, Russian athletes will not wear the country’s uniforms, the Russian flag will not be displayed and the Russian national anthem will not be played if the country’s athletes win gold.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Russia would not prevent its athletes from competing at the Games if they wanted to, damping down calls from some Russians for a boycott of the Games.

Russia has vowed to appeal against the IOC’s decision.

Kuznetsov said it was up to the Russian hockey team to decide whether they would participate but said it would be a shame for athletes to miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete at the Games.

“I would still go because I know the Russian fans will be at the tournament and if you win the medal, they will sing the national anthem for you,” he said.

Neither Kuznetsov nor Ovechkin, who has played in the past three Olympics, will be in the Russian team after the NHL announced in April it would not halt its season to accommodate the Gamed.

Kuznetsov said he could understand if Russian athletes were reluctant to play under the IOC’s rules barring the country’s flag and uniform.

“It would be the same as if they took the U.S. passport from you, right? You are not going to feel comfortable.” he said.

“So it’s similar for us, it’s everything.”

Reporting by Rory Carroll, editing by Ed Osmond

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