Thomas Bach chaired the executive committee of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) on Tuesday, which, on its first day, addressed the thorny issue of the return to international competitions of Russian and Belarusian athletes. The IOC itself recommended to international federations to exclude them last year when Russia invaded Ukraine. Eleven months after that, In January, Bach said that a formula had to be found for them to return under “strict” conditions of neutrality. This Tuesday he has insisted on it and has recommended their return as “neutral and independent athletes” without an anthem, uniform or flag that identifies their country. Athletes will not be admitted in team competitions. Neither are those who actively support the war, nor athletes who are hired by the army or national security agency. Likewise, they will have to prove that they have passed anti-doping controls. The decision on the Olympic Games in Paris 2024 and Milan-Cortina 2026 will be made “at the appropriate time” regardless of whether the qualification processes are already underway.
Anything other than readmitting Russians and Belarusians under those conditions, Bach has insisted, would be politicizing the sport. “If governments choose which athletes can compete or not compete, sport as we know it now would cease to exist.” He said that the recommendation adopted and addressed to international federations is a formula that “works” and that “security incidents” have not occurred. He has stated this: “The participation of athletes with Russian and Belarusian passports in international competitions works. We see this almost daily in sports like tennis. [en torneos de la ATP, no en la Copa Davis, por ejemplo], but also in cycling, in table tennis. We see it in ice hockey, in handball…”. He said that the Olympic world condemns the Russian invasion of Ukraine and at the same time assured that sport has to set an example and inspire dialogue and problem solving.
The detailed recommendations this Tuesday concern tests -European, world, international circuits- of the most immediate future. Nothing has been decided on the 2024 Paris Games (the only ones the IOC has the power to exclude or admit). Something that was expected in the federative world. The idea is that somehow the Russians and Belarusians start to participate to see how the countries react and leave the final decisions for later. This was confirmed by Bach: “We do not know what will happen tomorrow, nor next week, so it is not appropriate to make a decision now about 2024 and 2026. We will monitor the situation and decide later.” He recalled that the Olympic solidarity fund allocated 7.5 million dollars to aid Ukrainian athletes. The recommendation not to organize sporting events in Russia and Belarus or to invite or accredit officials from both countries to international events remains in force.
Bach, answered a few days ago at a meeting in Germany by hundreds of Ukrainian refugees, insisted that no athlete can be discriminated against because of their passport. That the Olympic movement stands in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, who condemn the war, but that sport cannot be politicized. He also assured that the “appropriate” guidelines to follow would be found for the return of the Russian and Belarusian athletes in the middle of the qualifying process for the Paris 2024 Games. This is what the International Federations have been demanding, that he clarify how to define a “neutral” athlete. Without his country’s uniform? No anthem? Without flag? With an explicit statement or a written statement that you are against the war? And how to do that in a country where it is punishable by jail to demonstrate against Putin’s war and where military service is compulsory and where most athletes belong to the Armed Forces?
The IOC has left the decisions to be made in the hands of the international federations. In fencing, for example, there has been a schism because, after the return of Russians and Belarusians was approved, several countries that host international competitions have refused to organize them. A member of one of these international federations tells this newspaper that they will all try to come together and adopt the same criteria, but that it is not easy, due to interests and power games. And less when it comes to team sports. Because, he argues, there it is more complicated to define neutrality, there it does represent a country and not each one himself. Another person questioned by the IOC decision assures that boycotts must be avoided – the Nordic countries are pressing – and that we cannot wait for the conflict to end – “it looks like it will last” – but that we must ” find solutions to get out of trouble”.
On the eve of the meeting on Tuesday, Bach listened by videoconference to the presidents of the international federations to test their feelings and concerns regarding the return of Russian and Belarusian athletes and under what conditions. A United Nations official also participated in the talk who, according to some witnesses, emphasized what happens when, assuming that everyone condemns the war and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this clashes with the individual rights of people. That is, in this case, of each athlete to be able to compete. The IOC’s clear will is for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete again.
In February of last year, when Russia invaded the Ukraine, its executive committee recommended that international federations not invite or allow the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials in international competitions. That was firstly because Ukrainian athletes could not even train under the bombs, secondly because the safety and integrity of competitions and participants could not be guaranteed. Eleven months later, last January, the executive committee assured that, for the sake of respecting the Olympic charter – the Olympic Games are competitions between athletes, in individual or team events, and not between countries – that a formula for Russian and Belarusian athletes to return to competition.
There was, according to that statement, that “respect the rights of all athletes to be treated without any discrimination.” It was insisted that “Governments should not decide which athletes can participate. No athlete should be prevented from competing just because of their passport.” Therefore, he continued, “a path for their participation under strict conditions should be further explored.” That is: as neutral athletes and representing themselves.
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