Olympics-Putin hosts Russians heading to Tokyo without flag, anthem

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MOSCOW (Reuters) -President Vladimir Putin hosted Russian athletes heading to the Tokyo Olympics at the Kremlin on Wednesday, wishing them medals and vowing to protect their rights as they are set to compete without their flag and anthem because of doping sanctions.

Russian athletes are barred from competing at major international events, including the Olympics, with their flag and anthem until late 2022. More than 330 Russians will compete in Tokyo under the name "ROC", an acronym for the Russian Olympic Committee.

"The rights and interests of our athletes must be protected from any arbitrariness, including from decisions that individual countries are trying to impose around the world, far beyond their national jurisdictions," Putin told athletes at a ceremony at the Kremlin.

"All of Russia will be cheering for you. I wish you great victories, and an honourable and fair competition."

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) ban, halved to two years after an appeal, is designed to punish Moscow for providing anti-doping authorities with doctored laboratory data which could have helped identify drug cheats.

"We will have to perform without the Russian flag, without the Russian anthem that we could sing loudly and in unison," synchronised swimmer Svetlana Romashina said at the ceremony.

"But the most important thing is that Russian fans and fans from all over the world know which country we represent."

Russians in Tokyo will be wearing blue, red and white uniforms, but their country's tricolour flag will not appear as such.

Instead of having their anthem played on the podium, Russian gold medal winners in Tokyo will hear music by Russian classical composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Many Russian athletes were sidelined from the past two Olympics, and the country's flag was banned at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, as punishment for state-sponsored doping at the 2014 Sochi Games.

Russia has acknowledged shortcomings in its implementation of anti-doping policies but denies running a state-sponsored doping programme.

At a separate ceremony at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour near the Kremlin later on Wednesday, athletes and senior sports officials prayed for the team's success in Tokyo.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Evgenia Novozhenina; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Ed Osmond)

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