Back in from the cold, Russian judokas eye Paris Olympics
After returning to international competition at the world championships in Doha following a ban in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian and Belarusian judokas are now eyeing next year's Paris Olympics.
Competing under neutral flags, the Russians have struggled to land titles but Arman Adamian broke their duck Friday in Doha winning -100 kg gold.
After his win the Russian flag was replaced for the ceremony with a banner of the competition and the anthem played was that of the International Judo Federation rather than Russia's.
Adamian's tunic also bore the letters AIN for Independent Neutral Athletes rather than Russia.
Asked about how he felt about that, Adamian said simply: "No comment".
"They understand that they come here as an individual because it is the rule from the International Olympic Committee (IOC). We understand but we hope the situation will change," Russian federation press chief Maria Tikhonravova told AFP.
- 'Big friendly family' -
Russians and Belarusians at the tournament say they have been well received by competitor nations.
"Judo is a big friendly family," said Adamian.
"When I arrived, I met people from the IJF, EJU (the European federation), and also from international teams and everybody was ready to say thank you for coming, we really missed you and they hope that we will stay here for other competitions until the Olympic Games," said Tikhonravova.
The return of the Russians sparked the withdrawal of Ukraine from the worlds but there was no repeat of what happened at the boxing worlds when several other nations pulled out in protest.
The Polish judo federation did say initially it was "shocked" but then sent its athletes to Doha with the Olympic qualification process under way.
Germany said it would have hoped for a different decision to send out a "signal" against Russia's "war of aggression." At the same time, the German federation said it did not want to disadvantage athletes.
During their enforced absence from the circuit the Russian judokas have continued training and taken part in domestic competition or else attended training camps with their Belarus neighbours and allies.
"I never stopped training, I was continuing my job and I think what I have I deserved it," says Adamian.
- 'We are patriots' -
There is an advantage in seeing the Russians and Belarusians return in that, a year out from the Paris Olympics, rival nations can see what stage their preparations and level are currently at.
"Better to see them a year out from the Games. It gives us an idea of their level as we had not seen them since March 2022," explained French deputy head coach Bastien Puget, despite a colleague regretting Ukraine's resulting absence.
"Of course, we want to go (to the Olympics) with our flag and anthem. I am a citizen of Russia, you are a patriot of your country, we are patriots of our country," said Tikhonravova.
In March, the IOC recommended the return of Russian and Belarusian athletes to international competitions, without commenting on their presence at the Paris Games.
In March, fencing became the first sport to authorise athletes from the two countries with triathlon following suit.
But others, including gymnastics, have kept the door shut for now at least.