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40 nations could boycott Olympics, says Polish minister

James Thorogood
February 3, 2023

The International Olympic Committee are making plans to reintegrate Russia and Belarussian athletes. Polish Sports Minister Kamil Bortniczuk has claimed that up to 40 countries could boycott the 2024 Olympics in protest.

Dr. Thomas Bach at the 2014 Olympics
The IOC is working on plans to allow athletes from Belarus and Russia to compete at the 2024 Olympics in Paris under a neautral flagImage: Tatyana Zenkovich/dpa/picture alliance

Calls for IOC to ban Russia from Olympics

As the European Union (EU) and Ukraine hold their first summit since the start of the Russian invasion, opposition to plans to reintegrate athletes from Russia and Belarus into the sports world is growing. 

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced at the end of January 2023 that it wanted to "explore a pathway" to allow Russian and Belarussian athletes to compete at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris under a neutral flag.

The statement said that "no athlete should be prevented from competing just because of their passport," but it's a decision that may not be without consequence, with Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia rejecting the proposal in a joint-statement.

"We condemn the IOC's efforts to bring athletes from the aggressor states of Russia and Belarus back into international competitions," the statement read. "These efforts under the veil of neutrality legitimize the political decisions and widespread propaganda of these two countries, including through sport, as a distraction from the illegal aggression against Ukraine."

IOC seeks way for Russians to compete at Paris Olympics

In a later appearance on Polish state television, sports and tourism minister Kamil Bortniczuk claimed that up to 40 countries could support a block on the IOC's plans before a meeting on February 10, saying: 

"I think, that in the coming week, 40 countries will take a very firm and very clear stand against the inclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes at the Olympics. Considering this I don't think we will face tough decisions before the Olympics and, if we were to boycott the Games, the coalition we will be a part of will be broad enough to make holding the Games pointless."

Indeed, on February 7, the Nordic Olympic Committees wrote to the IOC to reiterate their position, saying in a statement: "Now is not the right time to consider their return; that is our position."

That same day, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo told French media that her previous position on the matter — that Russian athletes could compete under a neutral flag — was now "indecent" and that athletes should be banned "while war continues."

Ukraine threatening boycott

The IOC said that any boycott would only "punish athletes," but Ukraine sports minister Vadym Guttsait stressed that all efforts must be made to make sure Russia and Belarus are not represented in any way at the showpiece event in Paris. 

"For the whole Ukrainian sports community, this is a question of principle," Guttsait wrote on his Facebook page. "Part of the International Federations are outraged by the IOC's efforts to promote the return of Russians and Belarusians. We have addressed and will address all international organizations that can influence the situation and whose opinions the IOC members can listen to.

"Our position is unchanged: as long as there is a war in Ukraine, Russian and Belarusian athletes should not be in international competitions. Certainly, our national sporting federations need to strengthen communication with international federations to keep the ban in effect. If we are not heard, I do not rule out the possibility that we will boycott and refuse participation in the Olympics."

Kafelnikov: Russian athletes 'cannot speak openly'

Speaking to DW, former Russian world number one tennis player Yevgeny Kafelnikov said he was in favor of allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete at the Olympics, saying it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many and that they are simply unable to speak out against the current situation.

"An athlete's career is not as long as that of those politicians declaring that they should not be allowed to compete under a neutral flag. They do not understand that, for many athletes, this may be the only chance in their lives to compete at the Games," said the 48-year-old, who won 26 singles titles, including the French Open in 1996 and the Australian Open in 1999.

"I understand the situation and I think we are all against what is happening now," he continued. "Any normal sane person understands that this complete nightmare must be ended. But the athletes who are now in our country cannot openly speak like that. Because it has consequences. And you don't have to be an Einstein to understand this."

IOC backed by United Nations

The IOC and president Thomas Bach have referred to a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 1, 2022, which recognized that "major international sporting events should be organized in a spirit of peace, mutual understanding and international cooperation, friendship and tolerance, and without discrimination of any kind."

Ukraine prsident Volodymyr Selenskyj with IOC president Dr. Thomas Bach
IOC president Thomas Bach visited Ukraine and met with president Volodymyr Selenskyj in the summer of 2022.Image: SvenSimon/ThePresidentialOfficeUkraine/picture alliance

This resolution was adopted by consensus of all UN member states, including the governments of Ukraine and Russia. As a result, the IOC did receive backing from the UN as a press release urged them to "ensure non-discrimination against athletes on the basis of their nationality."

The IOC also said that a "large majority of participants" in consultations with federations and athletes' representatives had spoken out in favor of such a step. The German Olympic Sports Federation (DOSB) have said they can imagine the reitegration of athletes from Belarus and Russia, but "only under strict conditions." 

For German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD), however, the IOC proposal is the "completely wrong way" to go about an issue that is likely to be ongoing until the Games start in July 2024.

jt/mf (dpa, SID, AFP)

James Thorogood Sports reporter and editor, host of Project FußballJMThorogood