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Russia expects more than 200 athletes to compete in Pyeongchang

Russian ice hockey players with the words 'Russian is in my heart' on their sweatshirts attend an Russian Olympic committee meeting in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017. Russia's Olympic Committee said on Tuesday that Russian athletes are overwhelmingly in favor of competing at the 2018 Winter Games despite a ban on the national team. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

MOSCOW (AP) Despite Russia's ban from the upcoming Olympics, officials in the country still expect more than 200 of their athletes to compete at the Pyeongchang Games.

Under International Olympic Committee sanctions announced last week, all Russians must compete under the Olympic flag as "Olympic Athletes from Russia."

"Potentially more than 200 athletes are in a position to qualify," ROC president Alexander Zhukov said after the organization held a closed congress on Tuesday.

The decision to ban Russia came after the country was found to have run a sophisticated doping program at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. On Tuesday, the IOC disqualified the Russian women's hockey team because six players were implicated in doping offenses.

That brings the total of Russians banned from Sochi to 31 and makes Russia the first country in history with more than 100 Olympic disqualifications, according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon.

Zhukov said the Russian Olympic committee unanimously voted for the athletes to compete despite the restrictions placed on the national team.

"The opinion of all taking part was united, and that was that our athletes need to go to South Korea, compete and win for the glory of Russia," Zhukov said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his backing last week.

Tuesday's conference took place at ROC headquarters, which was built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The corridors are decorated with pictures of Russian medalists, including several who have since had those honors stripped for doping verdicts not accepted by the ROC. A gift shop sells patriotically-themed trinkets including mugs with Putin's image and even a kettlebell in the shape of the president's head.

The national hockey team attended the conference wearing shirts reading "Russia is in my heart," while other athletes turned up in blue uniforms designed for the Russian team to wear in Pyeongchang. Launched last month, they now seem unlikely ever to be worn at an Olympics.

The IOC said Tuesday that the "Olympic Athlete from Russia" name will appear on uniforms. The IOC is working on regulations likely to ensure Russia does not feature prominently in the design that includes neutral colors.

Athletes would be prevented from displaying Russian flags in competition venues, but that prohibition is unlikely to extend to fans in the stands.

Russia will send a delegation to Switzerland on Friday to discuss details, including the uniforms.

The ROC also said it will submit rosters of its preferred athletes to the IOC, which will then issue invitations to Russian competitors.

"I think the IOC will make sure that the strongest Russian athletes get the invitations, so that, for example, our hockey team consists of the best players," Zhukov said.

Russian athletes going to Pyeongchang still need to pass a screening from an IOC committee which will examine their history of drug testing. It's not clear if the Russian women's hockey team could be excluded because of Tuesday's IOC bans.

"The issue ... remains open," the Russian Hockey Federation said in a statement which called the IOC case against them "baseless."

Zhukov said Russia still denies operating a doping program at the 2014 Olympics and rejected any suggestion he had made a deal with the IOC to avoid harsher sanctions.

"It's unacceptable to take away an athlete's right to represent his country. In my view, it breaks not only the Olympic charter, but human rights," Zhukov said. "So you really can't talk about a deal here.

"Obviously we consider this ruling unfair, but at the same time we're in the situation where we had to make a decision even though we consider this ruling unfair."

Individual athletes could still decide to skip the Olympics in protest, but the ROC said it has carried out a survey which didn't find any who intend to boycott.

The ROC's approval, however, doesn't mean Russia is abandoning legal challenges against the IOC sanctions, Zhukov said.

Twenty-five of the athletes banned from Sochi have filed appeals to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. IOC rules bar Russians from Pyeongchang if they have previously served doping bans.

Last week, the IOC ruled that Russia's suspension could be "partially or fully" lifted in time for the closing ceremony on Feb. 25 if Russia complies with its rulings.

Russia national hockey team captain Ilya Kovalchuk said he didn't mind being known as an Olympic Athlete from Russia, competing without his country's flag.

"Well, we are athletes from Russia. Sure, they've taken the flag and the anthem away, but they haven't taken our honor, conscience, patriotism, love for the country," Kovalchuk said. "That's in your heart and no one can take it, so we should get out there and fight twice as hard."

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AP Sports Writer Rob Harris in London contributed to this report.

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