The Paris Olympics: a comeback for Russian athletes?

The International Olympic Committee is considering the possibility of returning Russian athletes. The first precedent has already occurred – the Asian Olympic Committee invited athletes from Russia and Belarus to participate in continental competitions. This decision angered many in both Europe and Ukraine. Should Russian athletes under a neutral flag be returned to international sport?

O Sport, you are Peace?

As Russia started its invasion of Ukraine, various international sports organizations have begun imposing sanctions on the country and its athletes.

At the end of February 2022, FIFA and UEFA suspended all Russian international and club teams from their competitions “until further notice.” In March 2022, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspended Russian and Belarusian athletes from participating in the Paralympics. The World Athletics Council banned all athletes from Russia and Belarus from competing in World Athletics Series events “with immediate effect”, as also the International Tennis Federation (ITF) suspended the Russian Tennis Federation (RTF) and Belarus Tennis Federation (BTF) from ITF membership and from participation in ITF international team competition until further notice”.

On January 25, 2023, the IOC published a major statement on the situation in Ukraine and the ability of athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete at international events.

The statement is divided into three sections. In the first one, the IOC notes that sanctions against Russia and Belarus as a state remain in full force. No international competitions can take place in Russia or Belarus. No competitions may display the identification of these countries (colors, flag, anthem), and no officials from Russia or Belarus may be accredited or invited to international meetings or competitions.

In the second, the IOC expresses its full support and solidarity with Ukraine.

The third block states that no one can be discriminated against solely on the basis of their passport, and that “governments must not decide which athletes can participate in which competition and which athletes cannot“.

The IOC statement also said that “a pathway for athletes’ participation in competition under strict conditions should therefore be further explored.”

The IOC can admit athletes under the following conditions:

– athletes will compete only as “neutral athletes” without any country affiliation;

– only athletes who “fully support the Olympic Charter” will be able to compete. These are those who do not support the war in Ukraine and do not oppose the IOC peacekeeping mission and those who comply with the anti-doping code.

On January 26, the Olympic Committee of Asia (OCA) responded to the IOC’s statement, in particular, by inviting Russians and Belarusians to participate in the Asian Games, which will begin in September this year. At the same time, the organization notes that the potential return of athletes can only take place “under strict conditions” of neutrality.

The OCA believes in the unifying power of sport and that all athletes, regardless of their nationality or the passport they hold, should be able to compete in sports competitions. […]

The OCA remains on standby as the IOC continues to explore with International Federations the pathway for the return of Russian and Belarusian athletes’ participation in competition under strict conditions.

Olympic Committee of Asia

O Sport, you are Justice?

Ukrainian athletes on the ruins of sports halls
@Nikolay Synelnykov / Twitter (@ZelenskyyUA)

On January 26, the European Olympic Committee (EOC) also responded to the International Olympic Committee’s statement. Unlike the Asian Olympic Committee, they decided not to allow Russians and Belarusians to participate in the European Games.

The EOC Executive Committee explained that their decision is not a discredit to the athletes by nationality, but continues the IOC’s recommendation to suspend Russian and Belarusian athletes due to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The EOC continues to show its solidarity with Ukraine. Following the IOC’s recommendations, the EOC has also maintained sporting sanctions against Russian government officials and symbols. Based on conditions around safety and security, no athletes from Russia or Belarus are currently participating.

European Olympic Committee

The EOC also does not exclude the possibility of the return of Russian and Belarusian athletes, but clarifies that “any such participation is impossible under the current circumstances. Russian and Belarusian athletes will not take part in the European Games this year”.

“There is no such thing as neutrality when a war like this is going on”

Ukrainian athletes on the ruins of sports halls
@Nikolay Synelnykov / Twitter (@ZelenskyyUA)

The statements of the IOC and the OAC could not go unanswered by Ukraine. Minister of Youth and Sports Vadym Gutzeit announced Ukraine’s readiness to boycott the 2024 Paris Olympics. President Zelenskyy expressed disappointment with the IOC’s decision. He said that in the context of the war, which has been going on for 12 months, it is impossible to talk about the return of Russia and Belarus to the international sports arena.

“There is no such thing as neutrality when a war like this is going on. And we know how often tyrannies try to use sports for their ideological interests. It is obvious that any neutral flag of Russian athletes is stained with blood.”

Volodymyr Zlenskyy

He noted that he had sent a letter to the presidents of the leading international sports federations with a “simple and fair” appeal to decide on the decision of the IOC, which, “unfortunately, wants to open sports to the propaganda influence of a terrorist state.

President Zelenskyy also wrote a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron regarding the exclusion of athletes from Russia and Belarus from participating in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. 

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas criticized the IOC’s decision on Twitter:

Politically and morally wrong – time to strengthen isolation, not give in to Russia. Sport is a tool in Russia’s propaganda machine, ignoring that means siding with aggression.

Kaja Kallas

O Sport, you are Neutrality?

Ukrainian athletes on the ruins of sports halls
@Nikolay Synelnykov / Twitter (@ZelenskyyUA)

International sports organizations have consistently emphasized that the admission of Russian and Belarusian athletes is possible only if they are strictly neutral. However, the President of Ukraine is raising an important question:  

“I have repeatedly spoken with IOC President Thomas Bach and have not heard how the IOC is going to protect sport from war propaganda if it returns Russian athletes to international competitions.”

Unfortunately, sports and politics are closely related. Especially in authoritarian non-democratic states or tyrannies. 

Just recall the unfortunate incident in March 2022, when Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak demonstratively supported Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Already stripped of his country’s flag and anthem, Kuliak opted to cover the emblem on his uniform with a white paper letter “Z”, appearing on the competition floor and the medal podium alongside Ukrainian athletes donning a symbol of the Russian army’s invasion.

Russian athletes have taken a notably major role in state propaganda surrounding the Ukraine invasion. Gymnasts in particular have been front and center, including members of the gold medal-winning team from the Tokyo Games last summer. Viktoria Listunova and Vladislava Urazova (who are both minors) appeared at a March 18 rally for Putin in Moscow alongside rhythmic gymnasts Dina and Arina Averina. All four athletes were wearing large “Z”s in the colors of the Russian flag. (Kuliak was also in attendance.) While Russian athletes can be found in various sports leagues all over the world, those who compete for their country rather than a team bear the additional burden of representing both a people and a government.

Russian Olympic athletes in a rally supporting President Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Ukraine, March, 18,2022

Unfortunately, many sports clubs in Russia are state-funded or have direct military origins. For example, the CSKA football club has been part of the army since the Soviet era. CSKA is an abbreviation for the Central Sports Club of the Red Army. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Russian state has a direct administrative influence on athletes.

Accordingly, the appearance of athletes at pro-government rallies and support for the Kremlin’s course will be a logical consequence of the Russian system itself – the system of authoritarianism and the system of sports funding. 

Of course, in such cases, pressure may be exerted on athletes. But one way or another, they usually choose to support the government. Therefore, it makes no difference what dictates this choice. The main thing is the result, which is expressed in action or inaction.

Some Russian athletes’ support of the government, meanwhile, goes way beyond basic PR. Nikita Nagornyy, a member of the men’s gymnastics team that won gold in Tokyo, is the chief of staff of the Young Army Cadets, a pro-military youth movement established after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Since the war broke out in Ukraine, Nagornyy has posted on Instagram about the importance of the Young Army Cadets and the role they and the Russian army play signaling not only de facto support for the Putin regime but also an active role in perpetuating Kremlin propaganda.

As the MIC portal points out, Nagornyy’s actions, like Kuliak’s brazen display of nationalism, reflect how athletes help the Russian regime maintain soft power. The ideology of the Russian apparatus is as important and wide-reaching as its military operations, and elite athletes help enforce images of Russian dominance. 

Their achievements in international events are supposed to validate the regime. Unfortunately, there are no differences between the role of the Russian athlete now and the Soviet athlete during the Cold War. 

Lots of gold medals are supposed to equate to the strength of the nation and the government. This idea can apply to any nation’s sports programs but is particularly relevant in the current Russian climate.

Not discrimination, but an incentive

“If Russian athletes appear at international competitions, it is only a matter of time before they start justifying Russia’s aggression and using terror symbols. And it is also a matter of time before the Kremlin starts using the existing unprincipled “flexibility” of the IOC to say that the world agrees to make concessions to the aggressor.”

These are the words of the President of Ukraine, explaining his fears about the return of Russian and Belarusian athletes to the competition. Unfortunately, the risk of such a scenario materializing is growing. Especially when international sports organizations are among the most corrupt institutions.

International sport is a large platform with a large audience. And where there is a large audience, there is a great temptation to spread propaganda. Unfortunately, the Russian undemocratic regime will not miss this opportunity. 

Therefore, the issue of the return of athletes from Russia and Belarus can be perceived as a threat. A threat to democratic values.

Maintaining the status quo and banning the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes should not be seen as discrimination. Not at all. It is an incentive. An incentive to influence athletes as opinion leaders. They should think about why they are treated this way and why they have such a status. 

Maybe because it’s time for them to act too? Because their silence and inaction legitimize the Russian authorities and legalize the continuation of the aggressive war. 

The ban on participation in the competition is not because of a Russian passport, but because of passive behavior. It cannot be that some Russians are committing war crimes and killing civilians, while other Russians are traveling around the world, glorifying Russia and saying that they support peace.

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