Photo/IllutrationIn this Feb. 18, 2014, file photo, a Russian flag is held above the Olympic Rings at Adler Arena Skating Center during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo)

MONTREAL--Russian athletes should be forced to compete as neutrals at next year’s Olympics in Tokyo and other major events, a key World Anti-Doping Agency panel recommended on Monday.

WADA’s compliance review committee proposed a four-year ban on hosting major events in Russia and a ban for the same period on flying the Russian flag at major competitions.

The WADA executive committee will rule on the recommendations on Dec. 9.

That follows a lengthy investigation into lab data handed over by Russia in January. That was part of a deal to lift a suspension of the Russian anti-doping agency, and was meant to expose past cover-ups of drug use by Russian athletes.

Instead, the WADA panel says data on hundreds of positive tests were removed.

Russia was officially banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in fallout from investigations of a state-sponsored doping program which tainted the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The International Olympic Committee allowed Russia to send a 168-strong team under the name “Olympic Athlete from Russia.”

Those numbers were also restricted by IOC vetting of athletes’ history of drug-testing and whether they were implicated in any apparent cover-ups.

The panel’s recommendation would create a similar system lasting four years and covering not just the Tokyo Olympics but also the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and world championships in numerous sports.

The IOC’s president, Thomas Bach, still opposed a blanket ban on Russian athletes competing.

“Our principle is that the guilty ones must be punished as hard as possible and the innocent ones must be protected,” Bach said in London last week.

The WADA expert panel’s advice could have serious implications for European soccer body UEFA if accepted in full by the doping watchdog’s executive committee.

The recommendations include stripping Russia of sports events already awarded “unless it is legally or practically impossible to do so.”

St. Petersburg in Russia is set to host four games, including a quarterfinal, at soccer’s 2020 European Championship which is being co-hosted in 12 different countries. The city is set to share hosting a four-team group with Copenhagen in Denmark.

Though some tickets for those games have been sold ahead of the tournament draw on Saturday, St. Petersburg could practically be replaced by Sweden’s capital, Stockholm, which was a losing candidate when host cities were chosen in 2014.

St. Petersburg was also chosen by UEFA two months ago to host the biggest club game in world soccer — the Champions League final — in 2021. A replacement could easily be found.

UEFA is not a formal signatory to WADA — it receives funding from world soccer body FIFA which is a signatory — but runs an anti-doping program that meets world standards.

“We have already said that our partner is UEFA,” Russia’s top soccer official, FIFA council member Alexei Sorokin, told state agency Tass.

“We’ve already come so far in our preparations that we as organizers would find it strange to see some discussion of changes,” said Sorokin, who is CEO of St. Petersburg’s plans for Euro 2020.

Other prestige hosting due in Russia during the four-year period suggested by WADA includes the 2023 men’s world championship in ice hockey, already awarded to St. Petersburg, and the first World Cup races at the Alpine ski resort of Rosa Khutor since the Sochi Olympics. Two women’s races are scheduled on Feb. 1-2

WADA said the most recent edits to the vast lab data archive were made in December 2018 and January this year, after Russia had agreed to hand over the data.

At the time, Russia was delaying the handover, saying WADA experts’ equipment needed to be certified under Russian law before it could take place.

“These activities were concealed by backdating of computer systems and data files in an attempt to make it appear that the Moscow data had been in their current state since 2015,” WADA said in a statement.

WADA added that messages were planted to implicate former lab director Grigory Rodchenkov, who later became a witness for WADA, and two other people.

It didn’t name any athletes whose tests were covered up.