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Ukrainian athletes against boycott of international events

May 14, 2023

The Ukrainian government doesn't want its athletes competing against Russians. But some think that sends out the wrong message and risks surrendering the platform of international sport to Russian propaganda.

Vladyslav Heraskevych riding on a skeleton sled
Ukrainian skeleton racer Vladyslav Heraskevych is well aware of the platform the Olympic Games can provideImage: Eibner/Memmler/picture alliance

A Ukrainian member of parliament who competed at two Olympics has added her voice to the chorus of Ukrainian athletes who are demanding the country's government rethink its position on boycotting international sporting events.

Olga Saladukha, a bronze medalist in the triple jump at the London Games in 2012, described the situation as "tough" but said the Ukrainian parliament would do "everything we can" to have Ukrainian athletes compete at next year's Paris Olympics.

"I think Ukrainian athletes should and must take part in the Olympics," Saladukha said, speaking at the Athletes for Peace and Freedom Conference in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, this weekend. "They need to compete, they need to demonstrate our force and power."

Last month, the Ukrainian government passed a decree blocking its country's athletes from taking part in events where Russian and Belarusians are also present, effectively preventing them from qualifying for the Paris Games in certain disciplines.

Saladukha said the Ukrainian parliament was appealing to its counterparts in Europe "to achieve a situation whereby it's the Russian athletes who are banned from international events," adding that lobbying efforts were also continuing at the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

"Leaders of our sports organizations say they are working at the international level to educate the likes of [IOC president] Thomas Bach," she said. "But as we can see, Bach's decisions and rhetoric change every day."

Saladukha's comments echo the views of Ukrainian skeleton racer Vladyslav Heraskevych, who made headlines with his "No War in Ukraine" sign at last year's Winter Olympics in Beijing. He also said a boycott wasn't the goal.

"The Olympics and international sport [provide] a very big media platform," Heraskevych told DW in a television interview. "We shouldn't give up this platform to Russian and Belarusian narratives. Because of that, they increase their soft power, and more and more people in Russia go to the front lines."

Political interference in sport

The Ukrainian government's decree came in response to recommendations from the IOC that some Russian and Belarusian athletes should return to international competition as so-called Individual Neutral Athletes, without their national flag, anthem or other symbols.

To justify its stance, the IOC has cited human rights experts from the UN, who argue that a blanket ban based on nationality would be discriminatory. It has also criticized Ukraine for political interference, reiterating its view that "it is not up to governments to decide which athletes can participate in which international competitions."

However, Ukrainian MP Saladukha believes it is wrong to say that sport is beyond politics.

"This war is horrible, thousands of people are dying, and we're talking about a war criminal who's threatening the world with atomic weapons," she said. "We know that, in Russia, any athlete is essentially part of the propaganda agenda. Russian athletes still talk about the greatness of Russia and the Russian Empire."

For Anatol Kotau, the exiled former secretary general of the Belarusian Olympic Committee, the hypocrisy is staggering.

"It is unacceptable that the IOC accuses Ukraine of interfering in sport, when the entire basis of sport in Russia and Belarus is built on the organ of the state," he said at the conference, which was organized by the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, an opposition athlete-led movement.

The IOC's charter forbids political interference in sport and calls on national Olympic committees to "preserve their autonomy and resist all pressures of any kind, including but not limited to political, legal, religious or economic pressures."

Asked whether it would suspend the Ukrainian Olympic Committee, as its charter permits, the IOC simply referred DW to its previous statements, saying: "There is nothing further to add at the moment."

Ukraine boycotts World Judo Championships

'Bach is allowing terrorists to take part in international events'

While some sports have kept their bans on Russians and Belarusians, others — such as fencing, judo and most recently, weightlifting — have decided to follow the IOC's recommendations.

As a result, Ukraine's judo federation boycotted this month's world championships in Doha, Qatar, because of the presence of judokas from Russia and Belarus, claiming that the "majority" of the Russians taking part were "active servicemen."

Many sports organizations in Russia are affiliated with the country's defense ministry, including the army club, CSKA Moscow. The Associated Press identified five of the 18 Russians on the entry list in Doha as being members of CSKA. One of the sport's biggest names, Ukraine's two-time world champion Daria Bilodid, questioned how that was allowed to happen.

"That's nonsense, isn't it?" she wrote on social media. "I think that it is unacceptable to allow military personnel of a terrorist country who are killing Ukrainians every day to participate in international competitions. This is not at all about sports values."

The International Judo Federation said it had barred eight members of the Russian delegation after "independent background checks," but none of these were athletes. It stated that those on the entry list were "employed at the Federal Training Sport Center," a state rather than army-run enterprise.

The IOC has put qualifying decisions for Paris in the hands of each individual sport, stressing that no decision has yet been taken about the Games themselves. However, another Ukrainian Olympian, Nataliya Dobrynska, told the conference in Tallinn that Thomas Bach's organization was failing to adhere to its own principles.

"The Olympics is supposed to ensure that unity is achieved in the world," said Dobrynska, a gold medalist in the heptathlon at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "However, looking at Russia's war, how can we talk about unity?

"Bach is allowing terrorists to take part in international events. We need to keep applying pressure on him to ensure such decisions are not made."

Ukrainian skeleton racer brings hope to children

Edited by Matt Ford