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IOC faces anger over Russian and Belarusian athletes ruling

March 31, 2023

News that the IOC will allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete in international competitions has caused a backlash from athletes around the world. Many of them are vowing to fight back against the decision.

Olga Kharlan, Ukranian fencer (sabre) finishes in third place of the Trophée Orcom, a World Cup Round, qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, in Orléans, France, November 23rd, 2019.
"It looked like they were on the Russian side": Ukrainian fencer Olga Kharlan is disappointed in the IOCImage: Derajinski Daniel/ABACA/picture alliance

The International Olympic Committee's (IOC) ruling to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in international competitions was met with a mix of shock and anger during a conference call this week.

Athletes from the two nations were banned from most international competitions in February 2022 after Russia's invasion of Ukraine and following the IOC executive board's recommendation.

Dozens of athletes and Olympians immediately railed against the decision, including two-time Ukrainian Olympic skeleton competitor Vladislav Heraskevych, who labelled the recommendations as "absolutely wrong".

"The war originally started in 2014, when Russia hosted the Olympic Games", said the 20-year-old from Kyiv. "They occupied our territories and the Olympics helped to increase Russia's image on a high level. It was completely wrong to state that sports is outside of politics then, and it is also wrong to say that now."

According to Heraskevych, the Ukrainian National Olympic Committee Athletes' Commission only heard from the IOC last week, having heard nothing from them for almost a year.

Vladyslav Heraskevych, of Ukraine, holds a sign that reads "No War in Ukraine" after finishing a run at the men's skeleton competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, in the Yanqing district of Beijing.
Ukrainian skeleton racer Heraskevych Vladyslav says Russia has no place in international sportImage: picture-alliance/AP

"The Russians use sports as a progaganda tool to brainwash and encourage more Russian people to participate in the war and commit genocide against Ukrainians", said Heraskevych. "They have no place in international sports."

Thomas Bach met with criticism

On Tuesday, IOC president Thomas Bach outlined new guidelines that would allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as neutrals, paving the way for their return.

A host of athletes from all over the world have criticized Bach's claim that the inclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes has already been shown to work in other sports and competitions, such as tennis.

The tennis governing bodies ATP and WTA have allowed for players from those two countries to compete under a neutral flag since March 2022, stating that "the players compete as individuals to earn their place in tournaments based on their rankings".

As an example, Bach identified Ukrainian player Marta Kostyuk's ATX Open final against Varvara Gracheva from Russia. Kostyuk didn't boycott the game, but refused to shake Gracheva's hand after winning her first WTA title. 

"We have a ranking system in our sport. If I don't participate I will lose my ranking and my career will be over," said Kostyuk, who also refused to shake hands with Russia's Anastasia Potava at the Miami Open a week ago.

"A lot has been said and I wanted to say from myself, we have not been doing it publicly, but for the last year we have been fighting to exclude Russians and Belarusians from our sport," she added at the conference. "Unfortunately we are not independent players. We are working for the WTA and ATP, and we do not have a lot of power to make changes."

Tennis player Marta Kostyuk celebrating a point
Marta Kostyuk won her first WTA title in MiamiImage: ROB PRANGE/DPPI media/picture alliance

Tsurenko: 'I had panic attacks'

Fellow Ukrainian tennis player Lesia Tsurenko concurred with Kostyuk's view.

"Everything that Bach says is a clear manipulation," said Tsurenko, who also didn't hold back towards the tennis governing bodies. "The ATP and WTA are protecting the Russian athletes all the time and they don't care about how the Ukrainian ones must feel. They are also trying to prevent any kind of action from Ukrainian players."

Like many other Ukrainian athletes, Tsurenko is left to grapple with the consequences of the IOC's decision. "It is an ethical conflict," she said in the Wednesday conference of the possibility of being forced to compete against a Russian athlete. "I had panic attacks."

German fencer Lea Krüger found herself in a similar situation when she noticed that the International Fencing Federation (FIE) had voted to overturn a ban on Russian and Belarusian fencers competing in its events.

"It was portrayed as if we, the athletes, took the decision that the Russians can come back to fencing," Krüger said during the conference. "But it was the federation that took that decision and we have to deal with the consequences as athletes."

Earlier this week, more than 300 active and former fencers wrote to the IOC urging the organization to uphold sanctions against Russian and Belarusian athletes, saying that allowing them entry back into international competitions would be "a catastrophic error".

"They put the interests of Russia and Belarus before the ones of the athletes, especially the Ukrainians," said Krüger. "We had to show the world that not all fencing athletes agree with this, that's why we wrote that letter."

IOC president Thomas Bach at a press conference in front of the Olympic flag
IOC president Thomas Bach faces heavy criticism from athletes around the worldImage: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Boycott among the options

Fellow fencer Olga Kharlan from Ukraine found the FIE's decision "very tough mentally and physically" and says it is hard to process that the IOC is going down a similar path.

"It looked like they were on the Russian side, there wasn't a single word of solidarity with the Ukrainian athletes and people, which was quiet unbelievable."

Meanwhile, Ukraine's sports minister said in January that the country would consider boycotting the Olympics if Russian and Belarusian athletes are allowed to compete at Paris 2024. When asked this question, Vladislav Heraskevych didn't rule out taking collective legal action against IOC, should they stand by their decision.

"We are not ready to make a big announcement, but we are looking at all of our options."

Whilst Heraskevych doesn't see a boycott as the solution for the situation, he paints a grim picture of the future, should Russian and Belarusian athletes be allowed to compete in upcoming competitions.

"We were trying to build bridges for eight years and it lead to a full invasion", he said. "I am really scared what it will mean for the future if we have to compete with Russian athletes. Maybe it will lead to World War 3, you never know, especially with Russia."

Edited by Matt Ford

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