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IOC to debate Russian pathway to Paris 2024 Olympics

March 27, 2023

The International Olympic Committee is due to set guidelines this week for a Russian pathway to the 2024 Games in Paris. Ukrainian athletes see competing against Russians as an "outrage."

The headquarters of International Olympic Committee
The debate over the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes at the Olympics continuesImage: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Ahead of a key International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board meeting starting Tuesday, Russia, and its ally, Belarus, have a pathway for sending their athletes to international competitions, including the 2024 Paris Olympics.

IOC President Thomas Bach, over defiant words from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the country's sports minister, is with the board. 

The IOC board is expected to set guidelines for Russian and Belarusian athletes in time for this years qualifying event for the Paris Games.

The IOC had, last February, recommended banning Russia and Belarus after the Russian invasion, but now says athletes from those two countries should be allowed to compete under a neutral flag, and without national uniforms or symbols, or the playing of national anthems.

It says continuing to exclude Russian and Belarusian athletes "just because of their passports" is discriminatory. 

'This decision outrages us'

"We know that this world in general is not very fair," said Ukrainian National Fencing team women's head coach Olga Leleiko after hearing her sport's governing body had followed the IOC's lead and moved to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete. "But this decision outrages us." 

Amid interruptions for air raid alerts and nearby missile strikes from Russian artillery, Leleiko has been trying to coach her athletes in a Kyiv training facility.

The atmosphere during training sessions appears as lively as any athletic training space in the world, until the session is over and the athletes return to their world, living in a country under assault by an aggressor neighbor.

"On the one hand, there are sports and our victories," said Ukrainian fencer Alina Poloziuk. "On the other, our soldiers are dying."

After the March 10 decision by the International Fencing Federation to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in Olympic qualifying events, the German, Finnish and Swedish fencing bodies canceled events they were due to host.

"Many European countries do not agree [with the FIE]," said team coach Leleiko. "We know that America and some African and Asian countries support us." 

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and IOC President Thomas Bach
Thomas Bach (left) doesn't want all Russian athletes to pay for Vladimir Putin's aggressionImage: Tatyana Zenkovich/dpa/picture alliance

Germany rule out boycott

The German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) continues to support the ban for Russian and Belarusian athletes from international sports events in connection with Russia's invasion of Ukraine but will not boycott the Paris Olympics if it is lifted.

"A German team will compete, we are ruling out a boycott due to general concerns," DOSB president Thomas Weikert said in an interview with Germany's Funke media group published on late on Monday.

The DOSB could "currently not imagine the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes," Weikert said. "If the IOC decides otherwise, which seems likely, then we believe that certain conditions must apply for athletes from these countries to start."

IOC's Bach: Avoid treating Russians with 'collective guilt'

IOC President Thomas Bach said at a political forum in Germany last week that he was against political influence on sports, and any suggestion that Russians should be treated as if they have "collective guilt."

The IOC has said, however, that it wants to bar athletes who are "actively supporting the war."

At the forum, Bach suggested this week's IOC meeting could add some detail to the approach. He indicated the IOC could recommend barring athletes who pose with a "Z" symbol, a marking used on Russian military vehicles which has become a symbol of support for the war. 

"Our principles say clearly and distinctly that any active support for the war, and that includes wearing this 'Z', that includes posts and much else besides [is prohibited]," Bach said.

"Anyone who supports the war in this way cannot, or in relation to the international federations, since we are issuing this only as a recommendation, should not take part in these competitions."

He added that he expected new guidelines to be drawn up at the meeting starting Tuesday, including addressing concerns about the many Russian athletes who are serving members of the military or who represent military-run sports clubs.

Bach's appearance at the political forum in Essen, Germany, and at the meeting Tuesday in Lausanne, Switzerland, were prefaced by protests against the inclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes in international sporting competitions.

The protesters in Lausanne voiced concern that such athletes would be used for political and propaganda purposes by both governments.

Russia has welcomed efforts to readmit its athletes but has demanded they are allowed to compete under their own flag and national anthem.

Ukraine sports minister: Russian athletes sleep at night, our athletes don't

Ahead of the IOC meeting, Ukraine's sports minister Vadym Guttsait, who also leads the national Olympic committee, said any return by Russian athletes, or those of its ally, Belarus, would highlight the inequality caused the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

"We do not have normal conditions for training and preparation for the Olympic Games. At the same time, the Russians have all the essentials to train and perform inside their country. They sleep at night, but we don't sleep at night," he told reporters.

Guttsait's boss, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, spoke last month about the recommendations by the IOC saying that Russian athletes have "no place at sports and Olympic competitions."

"And it cannot be covered up with some pretend neutrality or a white flag. Because Russia is now a country that stains everything with blood — even the white flag. It must be recognized. And this must be recognized, in particular, at the level of the International Olympic Committee," Zelenskyy said.

"The IOC needs honesty. Honesty it has unfortunately lost. Honesty that will help stop Russian terror and bring peace closer."

A portrait of Ukrainian decathlon champion Volodymyr Androshchuk wearing an army uniform is seen surrounded by flowers on his grave
A portrait of Ukrainian decathlon champion Volodymyr Androshchuk marks his graveImage: DW

World Athletics body in line with Zelenskyy

The IOC said it will leave final decisions on whether to readmit Russians and Belarusians to the federations which govern individual sports. 

IOC President Bach was hoping for a unified approach, but the governing body of World Athletics, which includes the highest profile sports of the Summer Games, decided last week it will bar Russian and Belarusian athletes from track and field "for the foreseeable future" because of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

President Sebastian Coe told a news conference: "The World Athletics Council approved to continue to exclude Russian and Belarus athletes from all World Series events for the foreseeable future due to the invasion and ongoing war in Ukraine."

It may not be coming from the federation that matters most to her, but Ukrainian national fencing team athlete Olga Sopit says support like that from the World Athletics Council is welcomed.

"We feel everyone’s support. It is very good – both for us and for them," she said. "After all, this is an issue of morality."

km/mf (AP, dpa)