By: Hazel Bowering-Scott
There has been a lot of media attention recently, in the lead up to the Rio Olympics, about athletes who may be able to compete as 'neutrals' where their national sporting body has been banned from competing.
So, just what is a 'neutral athlete'?  Firstly, some background information:
Russian Athletics suspension from IAAF membership 
In November 2015, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), the world governing body for track and field, conditionally suspended the Russian Athletics Federation (RusAF) as an IAAF member due to what it considered to be a "deep-seated culture of tolerance for doping" in Russian athletics. 
This meant that Russian track and field athletes would not be able to compete internationally during the length of the suspension. The IAAF did give RusAF some time to get its house in order and to meet certain criteria to be readmitted as a member.  However, on 17 June 2016, the IAAF decided RusAF had still not met the conditions for reinstatement, maintaining its ban indefinitely.  The consequence was Russian athletes were ineligible to compete at the Rio Olympics. The Court of Arbitration for Sport's ruling, on the validity of the IAAF's decision, is expected on 21 July 2016. 
IAAF 'neutral athletes'
At the same time, quite extraordinarily, the IAAF changed its rules to allow individuals to compete as a 'neutral athlete'. With the change, if a national athletics body is suspended from the IAAF, athletes representing the suspended body may now apply to IAAF for an exemption to compete at an international competition. To succeed, athletes must show to the IAAF's satisfaction (in addition to meeting the selection criteria of the sporting body), that:
  • They have not been tainted by the national system because they have been outside their country sufficiently long and subject to other effective anti-doping systems; or,
  • They have made a truly exceptional contribution to the fight against doping in sport.
(Rule 22.1A, IAAF Competition Rules 2016-2017)

Applications for 'neutral athlete' exemption
As at 9 July 2016, IAAF had received 136 applications from Russian track and field athletes seeking neutral status. 
Long-jumper, Darya Klishina and middle-distance runner, Yuliya Stepanova (who blew the whistle on systematic doping in Russian athletics), have so far been the only athletes granted eligibility. This shows that IAAF's exemption criteria is strict and will not be met lightly.
Status of a 'neutral athlete'
To compete as a 'neutral athlete' means not to compete under any country's flag. However, the organiser of an international competition must still approve a 'neutral athlete's' participation. This means the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would still need to approve Klishina and Stepanova's participation at the Rio Olympics. 
For Klishina, the IOC has announced that, provided she is selected by the Russian Olympic Committee, she will still be a member of the Russian Olympic team and compete under the Russian flag. However, Stepanova has said that she will not compete for the Russian team. 
As any decision by the IOC to approve Stepanova's participation at Rio would require variation of the Olympic Charter, the IOC has referred the matter to its Ethics Committee and a decision is pending.
Given this is all new territory, quite what it may mean for a 'neutral athlete' to actually compete at the Rio Olympics – if the IOC allow Stepanova's participation – is not clear; intriguing questions remain such as: what uniform is worn? how does the athlete partake in the opening and closing ceremonies? and what anthem would be played at a medal ceremony?

Update - 26 July 2016

The IOC announced yesterday that Yuliya Stepanova will not be able to compete at the Rio Olympics, as recognition of 'neutral athletes' went against the core values set out in the Olympic Charter and only athletes entered by National Olympic Committees can compete.
While the IOC did not specifically consider Darya Klishina's ability to compete at Rio, its announcement will effectively allow her to compete if she is selected by the Russian Olympic Committee (which appears likely given her results).

Although the IOC has declined to allow 'neutral athletes' at the Olympics, it will be interesting to watch the potential development of 'neutral athletes' at international competitions.  European Athletics had allowed Stepanova to compete in the European Championships earlier this month as a 'neutral athlete'.  She was to compete in her sponsor's clothing with a symbol of European Athletics; should she have won, Beethoven's "Ode of Joy" (the anthem of the European Union) would have played at the medal ceremony.
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