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Calling Russian athletes 'neutral means supporting murder'

December 15, 2023

Olympic officials have decided some Russian and Belarusian athletes can compete in Paris next year. But recent cases have raised concern over how neutrality rules will be enforced.

Russian athlete Vladislav Larin poses with President Vladimir Putin
Questions are being asked about the presence of Russian athletes at the 2024 Olympics Image: Yevgeny Biyatov/TASS/IMAGO

Ukraine's acting sports minister believes the decision of Vladislav Larin, a Russian taekwondo fighter, to appear in a video that calls on residents of his home region to donate money for medicine and ammunition for Russia's invasion of Ukraine should cost him a spot at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.

"He is an example of the complicity of Russian athletes and Russian occupiers," Matviy Bidnyi said in an exclusive interview with DW. "Even if athletes in no way expressed their opinion about the war, they express silent solidarity with the killers."

Larin, a gold medalist at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, said in the video: "Friends, let's unite and help those who are defending our motherland."

The 28-year-old was banned for three months by his sport's governing body, World Taekwondo, which said it "accepted" his testimony. Larin, who couldn't be reached for comment, secured his Paris berth at the season-ending Grand Slam Champions Series in China on December 16.

Matviy Bidnyi
Matviy Bidnyi called Vladislav Larin an 'example of the complicity of Russian athletes and Russian occupiers'Image: Ukrainian Ministry of Youth and Sports

The IOC will permit individual Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in the Paris Olympics as neutrals — without their national flag or anthem — as long as they haven't actively supported the war or aren't contracted to the military.

However, Bidnyi said any neutral athlete who participates will be a "resource and a tool for Russian propaganda."

"When one nation has unleashed the largest aggressive war in Europe since World War II and is trying to destroy another nation, calling these people neutral means supporting murder."

'Strong crack' in Olympic values

In all its recent communication, the IOC has sought to play up the "peace mission" of the Olympic Games. In early December, it held a flurry of meetings and consultations to prepare the ground for its decision.

During a conference call with athlete representatives, for example, Cheick Cisse, the head of World Taekwondo's athletes' committee, welcomed Larin's return to competition, saying it "corresponded to the spirit of the Olympics," according to people on the call.

Russian athlete Vladislav Larin posing with his gold medal in Tokyo
Vladislav Larin won gold in Tokyo, but should he be allowed to compete in Paris?Image: Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images

For Vladyslav Heraskevych, a Ukrainian skeleton racer who has campaigned for the total exclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes from international sport, such statements invite ridicule.

"If these athletes are allowed to participate in the Olympic Games, will there be a spirit of peace and friendship at the competition?" he wrote in a message to DW.

"Or will the Olympics and all athletes be involved in the propaganda of war? Do we, as the Olympic movement, want to be associated with terrorism? The admission of these athletes will [create] a strong crack in the values that we stand for."

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IOC wants consistency in checks

Cases like Larin's underscore the problems the IOC is likely to face in the lead-up to the Paris Games. Even when Russian and Belarusian athletes have been cleared to compete by their sports, questions persist about their connections to Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine.

To ensure those athletes meet its eligibility criteria, the IOC has said it will draw on information from each sport's governing body, as well as seeking an "independent evaluation" of each qualified neutral athlete.

Pressed for more detail by DW, an IOC spokesperson said the organization's vetting process would be "on top of" what the international federations have done, stressing the need for "consistency" across all sports. The spokesperson wouldn't speculate on specific cases or situations, including sanctioning the same athlete twice, saying only: "We'll handle it when it comes our way."

While Russia continues to maintain that the criteria are "unacceptable," sports minister Bidnyi — who hasn't ruled out a Ukrainian boycott of the Games — said Ukraine will do "everything possible to make the International Olympic Committee listen to common sense."

"We will prove that the vast majority of Russian athletes are connected to the bloody regime," he said. "Russian athletes have the same passports as Russian occupiers who are killing Ukrainians."

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'Very limited number' of neutral athletes

Only seven Russian athletes have qualified for Paris so far. That includes four wrestlers, two of whom — Olympic champions Zaurbek Sidakov and Zavur Uguev ― have also been accused of supporting Russia's invasion by attending a televised pro-war rally in Moscow last year.

Explaining why it hadn't stopped them from taking part in Olympic qualifying competitions, United World Wrestling told The Associated Press in September that their "participation in certain events is not [of] their own will."

Skeleton racer Heraskevych pointed to this as another example of a governing body failing to follow what he considers "weak IOC guidelines," which he said discriminate against Ukrainian athletes.

With teams from Russia and Belarus not allowed, the IOC has suggested that "only a very limited number" of neutral athletes will get to Paris. Some estimates have said the final number will be in the dozens, nowhere near the 300-plus who turned out in Tokyo.

Edited by: Jonathan Harding

Correction, December 15, 2023: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Zavur Uguev. DW apologizes for the error.