Goodbye, Russia handball team. Hello, Russian Handball Federation Team.

Even a small semantic difference at the men’s world handball championship gives a clue to how Russians could compete at the Tokyo Olympics after a sports court imposed sanctions for a years-long doping cover-up.

The team played its first match at the championship in Egypt on Thursday against Belarus and became the first Russians to compete under the new rules. Officially, they’re a neutral squad representing not the country of Russia but its national handball federation while the country is banned from major sports events.

Spectators will struggle to spot much difference.

The team played a 32-32 tie in the preliminary round game wearing its usual red and white shirts, with the national coat of arms replaced by the federation badge and the team’s usual sponsor logos in place. There was no Russian anthem before the game and Russian players lined up for the International Handball Federation’s own anthem instead. The team flag is the Russian Handball Federation’s red, white and blue logo of a leaping player on a neutral white background.

That’s not what the World Anti-Doping Agency had in mind as a sanction in 2019 when it wanted Russian athletes to compete in neutral colors at the Olympics and world championships, under a neutral team name, and only if they were shown not to have benefited from past cover-ups.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport disagreed and watered down Russia’s punishment last month. It halved the sanction period from four to two years, scrapped the vetting system, and allowed athletes “limited association with the name … and colors of their homeland.”

In the full CAS ruling published on Thursday, the court said it was reluctant to impose conditions which would also punish younger, clean Russian athletes who weren’t part of the cover-up. The ruling included a plea from a Russian dressage rider who complained that a neutral uniform would be an “emotional low.”

The IOC has voiced no opposition to handball’s approach while it holds talks with winter sports governing bodies preparing their own world championships. The results of those consultations will give a clearer outline as to how Russian teams will look at the Olympics in July.


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