By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - Russian athletes who have not been welcome at international events due to the country's war with Ukraine could soon be allowed back in competition, said the head of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee on Thursday.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued guidance to sports governing bodies in February to remove Russian and Belarusian athletes from competition.
Belarus has been used as a staging ground for Russia's invasion, which Moscow calls a "special military operation".
But the IOC is now beginning to consider a pathway back for athletes from the two countries, said USOPC chair Susanne Lyons during a conference call on Thursday, adding athletes should not be punished for the actions of their governments.
"We know that the IOC is beginning to think about whether there's a pathway back for the Russian athletes," said Lyons. "They are beginning to reach out to all of their stakeholders to get input on that topic.
"But I think all of us feel at some point in time individual athletes should not be the victims of whatever their government politics or other tensions there are around the world.
"I think inevitably there will be a desire to see athletes that happen to reside in Russia come back and be part of competition but the timing and what that looks like is to be determined."
USOPC officials made it clear their issues are not with Russian athletes but with the government and sport officials.
They have been left frustrated at the slow pace of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency's (RUSADA) investigation into figure skater Kamila Valieva's failed drugs test at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games and the continued detention of the U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, who is jailed in Russia on drugs charges.
USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland described the delay of a report on Valieva as "outrageous" as U.S. figure skaters wait to learn if they will be elevated from silver to gold in the figure skating team event.
"I'd like to tell you that I'm less mad or less frustrated but it continues to be an outrageous situation," said Hirshland. "I understand that the investigation is complete, we saw yesterday an announcement that the hearings would be held.
"I said before our number one priority is to make sure that our Team USA athletes, who are sitting without their medals, know that we haven't forgotten them."
Valieva failed a doping test at the Russian national championships last December but the result was only revealed on Feb. 8, a day after she had already helped the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) win the team event in Beijing.
Hirshland also said, that while the USOPC, like everyone else, wants to see Griner freed and back home in the U.S. her case should not be conflated with other issues keeping Russian athletes out of international competition.
Griner, who had been playing for a Russian club during the WNBA off-season, was arrested at a Moscow airport on Feb. 17 when a search of her luggage allegedly revealed cannabis oil vape cartridges.
"It's not lost on anyone in the United States that she (Griner) is there and it's something very top of mind for all of us," said Hirshland.
"It's hard not to conflate the issues even though I think from a policy perspective I'm not sure they're directly related."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Christian Radnedge)