South Korea today voiced regret over the decision to ban Russia from the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, saying the participation of the country's athletes was crucial to the success of the event. The South Korean sports ministry urged Russian athletes to compete as neutrals following the International Olympic Committee's unprecedented ban, saying in a statement it had "worked hard over the past seven years to make meticulous preparations" for a peaceful and harmonious Games. "The participation of winter sports athletes from around the world, including Russia, is the key to the success of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and a crucial factor in realizing the Olympic spirit," said the ministry, which is responsible for preparing the Games. The presence of Russian athletes "who have shown outstanding performance in the many previous winter games, would make significant contributions to the success of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games," it added. The statement came after Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would not boycott the event despite the ban over a state-orchestrated doping programme, assuaging fears Russia could spurn the Games entirely. The IOC ruling allows clean athletes from Russia to take part in the Games as neutrals. In its statement, the South Korean sports ministry said it "regrets the situation that caused the IOC Executive Board to decide on sanctions against Russia for doping violations." The absence of athletes from Russia -- a winter sports powerhouse -- would represent a major blow to host South Korea, already battling under the shadow of North Korea's nuclear and missile threats. The Games have also been hit by the decision by North America's National Hockey League not to allow its athletes to attend, and lukewarm interest in South Korea. The Pyeongchang organising committee said Wednesday it would prefer if Russians competed under their own flag, but accepted as "second-best" the decision to allow their participation as neutrals.
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