Consumers Hunting For Health Insurance Find High Prices — And Some Great Deals

The homepage of the Affordable Care Act exchange on Nov. 1, 2017 in Miami. The open enrollment period to sign up for a health plan on HealthCare.gov runs through Dec. 15; several states with their own health care exchanges have later deadlines.

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Gene Kern, 63, retired early from Fujifilm, where he sold professional videotape. “When the product became obsolete, so did I,” he says, “and that’s why I retired.”

Kern lives in Frederick, Md., and has been an enthusiastic enrollee in Maryland’s health exchange since it began in 2014. But this fall he received a letter from his insurer explaining that the cost of his policy’s premium would jump from $800 a month to $1,300 in 2018.

Premiums have risen for many 2018 policies, though most people won’t actually have to swallow those higher costs, because subsidies have gone up, too. Gene Kern is one of the exceptions.

“Because of my income, I am slightly above the 400 percent poverty level,” he says, “and as a result I get no subsidy from the government.”

So Kern has switched to an HMO plan on the insurance exchange for around $900 a month. That’s more than 20 percent of his income, which comes partly from Social Security and partly from his retirement account. But, he says, “It’s the best I can get,” and he wants very much to stay insured for the next two years, at which point he will qualify for Medicare.

Gene Kern of Frederick, Md., shops for health insurance on the ACA exchange. The monthly premium for his policy is going up this year, he says, and he does not qualify for subsidies.

Selena Simmons-Duffin / WAMU

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Selena Simmons-Duffin / WAMU

Louise Norris is a health insurance broker and analyst in Colorado. She says there are a number of people like Kern who earn too much for a subsidy and will pay more for health insurance next year than they did in 2017. “Rates are high,” she says. “There’s no way to sugarcoat that.”

But she warns her clients against the temptation to get a less expensive plan that doesn’t comply with the minimum standards set out by the ACA.

“It seems like a good deal because it’s cheap,” Norris says. “But then you find yourself being that person who has a heart attack and needs triple bypass. And hundreds of thousands of dollars later you wish you had that ACA-compliant plan.”

Prices for ACA-compliant health policies went up in Tennessee, too, where state regulators approved average rate increases ranging from 20 to 40 percent.

Brenda Linn has already been paying $750 a month just to cover her own medical needs; so the retired kindergarten teacher and her husband logged on to HealthCare.gov to check the price of 2018 plans. To her surprise, the website brought up a great deal.

“And I’m like, ‘Dave, this has to be a mistake,’ ” she says. The price Linn was quoted was less than $5 a month. Why? A slight loss of income had made her eligible for a subsidy for 2018. “Because we didn’t qualify last year, I wasn’t really that hopeful,” Linn says.

But a large majority of marketplace shoppers do get subsidies. And for 2018, on aggregate, these subsidies are larger.

Tony Garr, a volunteer application assistant with the Tennessee Health Care Campaign, says more than ever this year, people should shop around on the exchange to see what kind of subsidies they may be eligible for.

“Generally speaking, they will find out that help is there,” he says.

Any many people who got a price break in the way of a subsidy in the past can get even more for their money this year.

For example, Daniel Prestwood, who is self-employed and cleans fish tanks around Nashville, says he found a better plan for 2018, with monthly premiums that dropped from $300 to $200. He says he tries not to get too frustrated by the political wrangling over health care.

“All I know is that for 2018 I’ll have a good health care plan in place,” he says, “and that’s the best I can hope for at this point.”

And even with the Trump administration’s efforts to hobble the ACA, in Tennessee, the number of applications processed by federally funded insurance guides — known as navigators and certified application counselors — has already surpassed last year’s. As of early last week, with 10 days left in open enrollment, more than 1,200 individuals had applied with official help, eclipsing the total from all of 2016, when the enrollment period was several weeks longer.

While application assistants only work with a tiny fraction of the 235,000 Tennesseans who have marketplace plans, Sandy Dimick of Family and Children’s Services Nashville, says she expects total enrollment will exceed last year’s total, as well. Navigators around the U.S. have worried that cuts to the federal advertising budget in 2017, and a lack of cheerleading from the White House, could drive down enrollment.

Take note: Though enrollment for most states ends Friday night, residents of eight states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Rhode Island and Washington) and the District of Columbia have slightly more time to sign up.

This story is part of NPR’s reporting partnership with local member stations and Kaiser Health News. Selena Simmons-Duffin, a producer at NPR’s All Things Considered, is working temporarily with NPR member station WAMU, as part of an exchange program at the network. Blake Farmer can be found on Twitter @FlakeBarmer.

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A Kind Of Chaos: The Science And Sport Of Bobsledding

A U.S. sled makes its way through curve 10 on the Lake Placid, N.Y. track during training runs.

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John Tully for NPR

Imagine a minute of pure adrenaline: a race down a track of ice at speeds up to 90 miles an hour, enduring crushing gravitational forces around the curves.

Bobsled is one of the thrilling — and punishing — sports in the Winter Olympics. The U.S. hopes to repeat its recent medal-winning performances at the 2018 Olympics next February in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Meantime, they’re competing on the World Cup circuit, including a stop in Lake Placid, N.Y., site of the 1932 and 1980 winter Olympics. High up on Mt. Van Hoevenberg, bobsledders from around the world launch into practice runs. The glistening track is about a mile long, with 20 sharply-banked curves. It’s beautiful, but terrifying.

“A good run, especially in Lake Placid, can feel like you’ve been shoved in a metal garbage can and kicked down a rocky hill,” bobsled pilot Elana Meyers Taylor says.

She’s a two-timeOlympic medalist (silver in Sochi in 2014; bronze in Vancouver in 2010).

“Yeah, it can hurt,” fellow driver Jamie Greubel Poser, who won bronze in Sochi, says. “We consider bobsled an impact sport. You’re hitting walls at 80 miles an hour. It can literally feel like a boxing match. I’ve ‘seen stars’ driving.”

“[When] we’re going down, the whole thing is just vibrating,” pilot Nick Cunningham says. “It’s loud, it’s cold, there’s no padding inside the sled. It’s very, very uncomfortable. But when you win a medal, it makes everything completely worth it.”

A bobsled (‘bobsleigh’ via the Olympics website) run starts with the all-important push: the initial burst of acceleration, as athletes run alongside the sled, propelling it down the first 50 meters of the course. The sleds themselves weigh hundreds of pounds, so explosive strength and speed in the push are critical. (It’s no accident that many bobsled athletes, Greubel Poser and Cunningham among them, come to the sport from the world of track and field).

After the push comes the load. In a two-person bobsled, the pilot jumps over the side into the front, while the brakeman vaults in from behind like a long jumper. They have to do it both quickly and delicately, so the sled doesn’t skid out. (Watch a video explainer here).

U.S. National team member, Carlo Valdes, left, and Codie Bascue, right, push off from the start for their training run in Lake Placid.

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In the four-man event, the choreography is even more intricate. The team must cram four massively muscular bodies into a narrow bobsled while sprinting at full speed. They need to perfectly coordinate who jumps in first, in what order they sit down, and where their legs go as they fold themselves in.

“It’s kinda chaos sometimes,” says Evan Weinstock, who sits in the second position, just behind the driver. Only the driver has an actual seat; the others sit on their heels,“tucked up in a little cannonball position,” Weinstock explains.

“It’s tough,” he says. “You definitely get a lot more flexible. If you weren’t before you got in the sport, you are now.”

Another peril is that bobsledders wear shoes studded with sharp spikes for traction on the ice. Bad things can happen when they jump in the sled and have to jam their feet under the teammate in front of them.

“We’re only wearing little layers of spandex,” Weinstock says.”So sometimes you get a spike in your thigh or your calf. It’s just part of it.”

Once they load, the athletes hunker down low to be as aerodynamic as possible. Bobsled racesare won or lost by hundredths of a second, so every tiny amount of drag or friction can spell trouble.

“Any single steer you do slows the sled down because it creates friction,” Elana Meyers Taylor says. “Who can slow the sled down the least wins the race.”

During the descent, it’s all in the hands of the pilot, who steers with two “D rings” attached to cables that turn the front axle.

Pilot Jamie Greubel Poser steers her sled out of a section known as ‘Benham’s Bend’ and onto ‘The Chicane’ straightaway during a training run in Lake Placid.

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John Tully for NPR

“You’re pulling right to go right, and you’re pulling left to go left,” Cunningham says. “I look like I’m playing a little video game.”

The others in the bobsled keep their heads down, so they don’t actually see anything as they hurtle down the course. Pilot Nick Cunningham says that’s probably just as well.

“I don’t want them to realize some of the things I’ve seen in the front of that sled,” he laughs. “There’s been some hairy times goin’ down where I’m, like, ‘that was dangerous!'”

But even so, he won’t admit it to his teammates: “I’m just, ‘All right, guys, that was a good trip! Let’s go back to the top.’ And I’m sitting, going, ‘Oh man, that wasn’t good at all!'”

As the sleds speed around a curve, essentially vertical on a wall of ice, spectators can see the athletes’ bodies shaking from the intense pressures exerted on them. Bobsledders endure forces up to 5 Gs, which means they’ll feel force equal to five times their weight.

“It’s like the G forces are trying to suck you through the bottom of the bobsled,” Evan Weinstock says. “It forces our stomachs through our legs. It feels like you’re getting folded in half like a pancake.”

One tiny wrong move in a bobsled can mean disaster.

The Lake Placid track is known among athletes as one of the more technically challenging courses in the World Cup circuit.

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John Tully for NPR

“Crashing is one of those things that it’s not a matter of if, it’s just a matter of when,” Elana Meyers Taylor says.

She’s crashed more times than she can count.

“There’s sharp things in the sled that’ll cut you up,” she says. “And the biggest thing is, it is very, very loud. It is scraping, and it is piercing.”

In the sport of bobsled, Meyers Taylor says, “we’re all playing with Newton’s laws. And whoever can navigate those laws the best, wins the race.”

“A lot of physics actually goes into it,” Cunningham adds with a grin. “Go figure, because in high school, I was always, ‘Ah, I don’t need this stuff, I’ll never use this stuff again.’ And now, that’s how I make a living.”

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HealthCare.gov Enrollment Ends Friday. Sign-ups Likely to Trail Last Year's

Isabel Diaz Tinoco and Jose Luis Tinoco had some questions for the Miami insurance agent who helped guide them in signing up for a HealthCare.gov policy at the Mall of the Americas in November.

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Friday is the last day to enroll in a health insurance plan through the federal government’s insurance exchange, HealthCare.gov.

And in a little office park in Northern Virginia, Brima Bob Deen is dealing with the rush.

He is the president of a church-sponsored job training center called Salvation Academy. But this time of year, he acts mostly as an enrollment counselor for Affordable Care Act health plans.

And this week, his calendar is full.

“Every year when you get close to the end, that’s when you have a lot of people come in,” he says.

Deen has stopped allowing people to stand in line outside his office and instead now requires them to make an appointment. That way, he says, he can give them his full attention, rather than being distracted by impatient people waiting.

As we sit to talk, a client calls with an update. The man had been rejected by the HealthCare.gov system because of issues with his email. He tells Deen that his son has helped him resolve the problem.

“Yesterday I have a client and she has difficulty in choosing a plan based on her tax credits and her qualifications,” Deen says. “She has this bunch of plans — there’s silver, there’s gold, and she’s just confused.”

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As of Sunday, about 4.7 million people had enrolled in a health plan and more than a million of them were new customers. That’s about 650,000 more than signed up in the first six weeks of last year, according to Lori Lodes, who ran outreach for HealthCare.gov during the Obama administration and is now leading an effort called Get America Covered.

“We are seeing record demand,” Lodes says. “People want to get health coverage, and people are finding affordable coverage when they actually shop and sign up.”

“The problem is that the enrollment period is cut in half,” she adds.

Friday is the deadline, at least for people buying insurance through the federal marketplace. Several states run their own exchanges and those enrollment periods usually last longer.

The Department of Health and Human Services earlier this year cut the enrollment period, arguing that the shortened period would likely reduce the number of people who buy insurance only when they get sick. And the agency also cut the budget for outreach and advertising for HealthCare.gov by 90 percent.

Trump administration officials declined requests for an interview on this year’s changes to enrollment. But a spokesman says the HealthCare.gov website and call centers are working smoothly and handling the final week’s volume.

Lodes’ group has been enlisting big names to help drum up awareness, including a YouTube video featuring West Wing actors Martin Sheen and Bradley Whitford.

“We are both here to remind you about the Affordable Care Act,” they say. “And here’s what you need to know. You gotta sign up!”

Former President Barack Obama has been on Twitter reminding people to enroll.

“It’s up to all of use to spread the word. Sign up through this Friday,” he tweeted.

Just got off a call to thank folks who are working hard to help more Americans across the country sign up for health coverage. But it’s up to all of us to help spread the word: Sign up through this Friday at https://t.co/ob1Ynoesod. https://t.co/8TYpLCestp

— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) December 11, 2017

And earlier this week, comedian Jimmy Kimmel gave HealthCare.gov a plug on his show.

“Obamacare is not dead,” he said, while holding his son, who recently underwent surgery, on his hip. “It’s very much alive. Millions of people qualify for a reduced rate or even totally free plans.”

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Remembering Bruce Brown, Whose Search For The Perfect Break Redefined Surfing

Bruce Brown, seen in 1963, attempts to balance a mounted camera on his board while catching a wave. The man behind the seminal 1966 surfing documentary The Endless Summer died Sunday at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., at the age of 80.

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Bob Bagley/Bruce Brown Films via AP

Writing on June 16, 1966, just one day after the film The Endless Summer finally got a wide release, The New York Times remarked on its creator’s “courage — some might say foolhardiness.” For years, he struggled to convince film distributors that even people who had never seen a beach before would want to see his surfing film.

And Bruce Brown was right.

On Sunday, more than half a century since The Endless Summer hit big screens across America, Brown died at the age of 80 in Santa Barbara, Calif. He leaves behind a film that defined surfing for a worldwide audience and, after a slew of earlier big-screen misrepresentations, finally did so on the sport’s own terms.

There had already been a surfing boom in Hollywood by the mid-1960s, to be sure, but the surfers they featured rarely failed to be flimsy depictions of no-goodniks or ninnies — and rarely failed to frustrate actual surfers. Then, Brown’s film came along.

“What Bruce did, and what nobody has done since, was to square the circle,” Matt Warshaw, author of The History of Surfing, told The New York Times. “He was able to present surfing as it really is, to non-surfers.”

Endless Summer is 50-something years old now,” Warshaw explained to Surfer magazine earlier this year, “and every year that goes by, it’s harder to remember the degree to which Bruce broke the laws of entertainment physics by managing to please and impress both his core audience and the general public.”

Bruce Brown readies his camera in this undated photo.

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Bob Bagley/Bruce Brown Films via AP

The documentary, which featured two of Brown’s friends on a round-the-globe quest to find the perfect wave, was — as Ian Buckwalter wrote for NPR — “part surfing film, part travelogue, occasionally even anthropological study and wildlife film, but ultimately it visually taps into the wanderlust that sends us to far-flung beaches in search of an escape from life that we can’t find at home.”

It was shot on a shoestring budget of $50,000 and destined to earn more than $30 million. But it was by no means his first film.

“I started off when I was 14, with an 8-mm camera taking pictures of surfing to show my mom,” he told the skateboard company Dusters California in a 2014 interview.

He enlisted in the Navy after high school in the 1950s, drew a dream assignment aboard a submarine in Hawaiian and used his 8-mm camera to film home surfing movies in his down time. After his discharge, he would show the movies at small venues in Southern California for the price of a quarter, until a local surfboard manufacturer put up a few thousand dollars for him to produce a whole feature in Hawaii, Slippery When Wet.

What followed was a series of movies (one every year, in fact) that would get a limited release and were attended mostly by other surfers. But even these small-scale pictures made an impact. In fact, his 1961 film Surfing Hollow Days lays claim to its own corner of surfing history. It includes the first footage ever shot of surfers riding arguably the world’s most famous break, and even coined its name: the Banzai Pipeline off Oahu, Hawaii.

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But it was The Endless Summer that caught the world’s attention, at least eventually.

Prospective distributors were deeply skeptical about a beach film’s ability to draw audiences far from the beach. So Brown and his associates pursued a crazy idea to show the film about as far from the beach as they could get: Wichita, Kansas. The Inertia, an outdoors sports news site, sums up how the stunt “has become part of the movie’s lore”:

“Wichita was slammed with a huge snowstorm that winter and icicles dangled from the marquee of the Sunset Theater that bore the name of the film in February 1966. [Promoter R. Paul] Allen feared a flop, but beneath the frosty sign that first night stretched a long line of Kansans, hopping up and down to stay warm while waiting to watch the adventures of Robert August and Mike Hynson on the big screen. The movie sold out two straight weeks. Distributors in New York still weren’t impressed, but the movie’s success in the middle of winter, in the middle of America, convinced Brown and Allen to keep fighting, and they rented out a theater in Manhattan and finally got the buzz they needed to turn the film into a $30 million behemoth.”

“I put everything I had on the line,” Brown told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “If it wouldn’t have worked, it would have been the ball game.”

The immortal film poster for The Endless Summer, which you may recognize from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, not to mention college dorm room walls across the country.

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Monterey Media Inc.

But it did work. Shortly after the film hit the big screen on a wide scale, it became a cultural icon, one so recognizable that even its movie poster is now in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Brown was eventually enshrined in surfing’s Hall of Fame, and his film was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, which selects works for their cultural and historic importance to the U.S.

Brown would go on to earn an Oscar nomination for his documentary on motorcycle riders, On a Sunday, and after a long retirement, he even returned in the early ’90s to release a sequel to his seminal surfing film.

Still, it is The Endless Summer that defines his legacy as a filmmaker and an ambassador for the sport he loved. And as soon as news of his death surfaced publicly, emotional tributes flowed in from some of the surfing world’s living legends — all-time greats such as Kelly Slater and Stephanie Gilmore, neither of whom had even been alive when the movie hit theaters.

“Thank you for showing us the world as you saw it,” Slater said on Instagram. “We need more like you. On to the other side. I hope to bump into you again in some other place and time.”

Ultimately, Brown says it was less his work as a filmmaker than his love of surfing that defined him.

“I had no formal training,” he told Dusters. Before heading to Hawaii to film his first full-length feature, “I got in the plane with a book on how to make movies. It was a real thin book, too.

“I had no interest in cameras other than surfing,” he added. “I just wanted to take pictures of me and my buddies surfing — you know, just to show people.”

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2-Year-Old Twins Are Big Philadelphia Eagles Fans

Like most sports teams, the Eagles have a fight song. Listening to a baby monitor, parents of the twins were surprised to hear them singing the song from their cribs.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Good morning. I’m David Greene. Not a great time for Philadelphia Eagles fans. You were dominating this season, but now you’ve lost your quarterback to injury. This may cheer you up. It’s your fight song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles.

GREENE: Or, how about this? Two-year-old twins. Their parents heard them on the baby monitor singing in their cribs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED TODDLERS: (Chanting) E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles.

GREENE: With fans like that, Philly, you can’t lose. It’s MORNING EDITION.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Forum: Examining Discrimination Against Native Americans

Join us for a webcast of the poll results on discrimination against Native Amercians hosted by The Forum at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

iStockphoto.com/GracedByTheLight

Editor’s note 1:13 p.m.:The webcast is over. We’ll update the post with an archived video when it becomes available.

How do Native Americans experience discrimination in daily life?

A poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is examining the extent of discrimination against five major ethnic and racial groups in America today. It finds that Native Americans experience very high rates of discrimination in everyday life.

More than a third of Native Americans and their family members have experienced slurs and violence, and close to a third have faced discrimination in the workplace and when interacting with the police. Native Americans who live in majority-Native American areas are significantly more likely to experience this kind of discrimination, the poll finds.

The results for Native Americans in the poll were released earlier this fall and will be highlighted in an expert panel discussion to be live-streamed here at 12 p.m. ET Tuesday, Dec. 12, as part of The Forum at the Harvard Chan School.

With unprecedented documentation, the poll provides results from police interaction, job applications, health care, racial slurs and more. The Forum will explore the results and their implications for society.

This poll is examining discrimination among African-Americans, Latinos, whites, Asian-Americans, women, and LGBTQ adults on their experiences with discrimination.

Joe Neel, deputy senior supervising editor on NPR’s Science Desk, will moderate the discussion with:

Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Kennedy School

Stephanie Fryberg, associate professor for American Indian studies and psychology, University of Washington

Michael Painter, senior program officer, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and former chief of medical staff at the Seattle Indian Health Board

Yvette Roubideaux, director of the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center and former director, Indian Health Service

Our ongoing series “You, Me and Them: Experiencing Discrimination in America” is based in part on a poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. We have released results for African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, whites, Native Americans and women.

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Russian Olympic Head Says 200 Of Russia's Athletes Might Compete Under Neutral Flag

Russian short track athletes, first row, and ice hockey players wearing sweatshirts with the words “Russia is in my heart” attend a Russian Olympic Committee meeting Tuesday. The Russian committee said it will support athletes who compete at the 2018 Winter Games despite a ban on the national team.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP

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Ivan Sekretarev/AP

Russia’s Olympic Committee is backing a plan for Russian athletes to compete under a neutral flag in the upcoming Winter Olympics, saying it will support their participation. Despite doping sanctions against the national team, the Russian group’s head says 200 of the country’s athletes could wind up going to PyeongChang.

The decision comes one week after the International Olympic Committee suspended Russia’s Olympic Committee and effectively banned the country from having an official presence at the 2018 PyeongChang Games, as punishment for Russia’s widespread and systemic cheating by athletes using performance-enhancing drugs.

Although the national committee was banned, the IOC also “created a path for clean individual athletes to compete in PyeongChang” — providing the athletes can pass strict scrutiny. Instead of wearing the official Russian uniform, they would compete under the title “Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR)” and hear the Olympic anthem rather than their national anthem.

On Monday, a group of Russian athletes issued a statement through the ROC saying that they want to compete in South Korea, despite the troubling circumstances and the humiliation of not being able to openly represent Russia.

The ROC’s decision came at an annual Olympic meeting, at which its president, Alexander Zhukov, said that the organization had absorbed the brunt of the IOC’s punishment so that its athletes could still have a chance to compete. Zhukov said 200 or more Russian athletes might participate in PyeongChang, depending on whether they win individual approvals.

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— Olympic Russia (@Olympic_Russia) December 12, 2017

Zhukov added, according to state-run Tass media, “However, it will be strictly up to the IOC (the International Olympic Committee) to define the number of invitations and a national delegation’s composition.”

In recent weeks, the IOC has been issuing a steady flow of sanctions against Russia’s Olympic athletes who were caught doping during the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014. This morning, the Olympics’ governing body announced it was punishing six athletes from Russia’s women’s ice hockey team, disqualifying the squad’s results in Sochi and imposing lifetime bans that render the athletes ineligible for upcoming Olympics.

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