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Russians threaten to pull out of Olympics, but in Moscow Putin says no such move likely

Updated:
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ Angered by a pair of decisions that may have cost their athletes medals, Russia and South Korea have plunged the Winter Games into new controversy with complaints of favoritism and poor officiating.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin said Friday that North American athletes have a ``clear'' advantage at the Olympics. But he also indicated Russia will not boycott the rest of the games, as Russian Olympic officials had threatened a day earlier.

``Let us see how the Olympic Games end,'' Putin told journalists at the Kremlin. ``Let us hope that the IOC leadership will manage to solve these difficulties.''

Russia had threatened to pull out of the Olympics after a star cross-country skier was disqualified Thursday following a blood test. And South Korea said it might boycott Sunday's closing ceremony over a judge's decision that disqualified a South Korean speedskater and gave the gold to an American.

``If decisions are not made and issues we raised are not resolved, the Russian team will not play hockey, will not run 30 kilometers, will look very negatively on other factors,'' Russian Olympic Committee president Leonid Tyagachev said in Salt Lake City.

The Russian men were scheduled to face the United States in the hockey semifinals on Friday, the 22nd anniversary of the Americans' stirring victory over the Soviet Union at the games in Lake Placid, N.Y.

After meeting with Tyagachev, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge sent a letter to Putin to assure him the games were fair and that his nation's anger was understood.

``President Rogge wrote to express sympathy, to say he has been in contact with the sports federation and that the decisions are absolutely correct,'' IOC director general Francois Carrard said.

Tyagachev said he told Rogge that his nation was ``greatly unappreciated'' in the Olympics.

Even as Putin downplayed the chances of a Russian exodus from Salt Lake City, the lower house of Russia's parliament passed a resolution 417-0 calling on Russian athletes to boycott the closing ceremony unless the IOC reruns the cross-country race, bars North American referees from the hockey game and apologizes to the Russian Olympic team.

South Korea unsuccessfully protested an International Skating Union referee's decision Wednesday night that gave the 1,500 meter short-track gold to Apolo Anton Ohno. He finished second to a South Korean skater but got the gold when the Korean was ruled to have interfered on the final lap.

``We can take various measures, including not participating during the closing ceremony,'' said Park Sung-in, head of South Korea's Olympic team.

With just three days before the closing ceremony, IOC leaders met Thursday night to discuss the issues.

``We're watching it very closely, checking with the federations seeking reassurance on their judges and trying to calm the various groups,'' IOC vice president Kevan Gosper said.

Rogge spoke with the presidents of skating, skiing and hockey ``and was reassured that their judges are acting in accordance with the rules,'' Gosper said.

The Russian threats came hours after cross-country skier Larissa Lazutina was disqualified from the 20-kilometer relay because of high levels of hemoglobin found in a pre-race blood test.

Gosper said Olympic officials ``understand from the Russians that their people at home are very unhappy, as are the Koreans.''

Carrard said the IOC had no second thoughts on its decision last week to award duplicate gold medals to Canadian pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier after a judge's conduct was called into question.

Tyagachev said there was a 24-hour window to address Russia's concerns, and that if the country's delegation left Salt Lake City it probably would not compete in Athens in the next Summer Games.

Later, Vitaly Smirnov, an IOC vice president from Russia, said there was no ultimatum, ``not 24 hours or 48 hours.''

Lazutina's disqualification knocked Russia, the four-time defending champion, out of Thursday's relay event. Tyagachev said that while the skier's hemoglobin count was just above the legal limit, she was not guilty of doping.

``We are clean,'' he said. ``We have nothing to hide.''

A urine test on Lazutina will determine whether her case will be considered a drug positive. Results were expected Friday. Lazutina, who already has won two silvers at these games, is scheduled to compete in the 30-kilometer race Sunday.

Tyagachev made repeated references to the figure skating judging dispute, in which Russia's Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze won the pairs' competition but had to share the gold medal with Sale and Pelletier in a deal reached between the IOC and the skating union.

``We went along with the decision and tried to look at it objectively,'' he said. ``But we have only so much patience.''

Tyagachev also said a high number of Russian athletes had been picked for drug tests.

``I think we are seeing a witch hunt,'' he said.

Smirnov warned not to take his country's complaints too lightly: ``Without Russia, the Olympic Games will be lost.''
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