Is sport out of politics? Why the IOC must not permit Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete at the 2024 Olympics in Paris

While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) continues to hesitate on whether to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in the Olympics and Paralympics in Paris in 2024, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) held a landmark public hearing on the issue on April 25, 2023.

The position of PACE seemed unambiguous: the representatives (a number of ministers, high-ranking officials of international sports organizations, athletes, human rights experts and parliamentarians) emphasized that the power of sports must not be underestimated, that the admission of Russians and Belarusians to the Paris Olympics in 2024 contradicts the mission of the Olympic movement to promote peace, instead serving the propaganda goals of Russia.

In particular, Renata Roman, head of the Ukrainian World Congress (UWC)’s World Sports Committee, stressed all Ukrainians (including the vast 20-million-strong diaspora) expect PACE to take leadership and decisive actions, and to ban the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in 2024. This position was uncompromisingly declared earlier by 40 European countries, signatories of a statement declaring international support for Ukraine, and calling for citizens of Russia and Belarus not to be admitted to the competition as 'neutral' persons as referenced by the Executive Board of the IOC on 25 January 2023.

The reaction of the Ukrainian government to the decision of the IOC is definitive. Ukrainian athletes shall not participate in 2024. The government made the decision to ban Ukrainian athletes from participating in the Olympics, to which Russian and Belarusian athletes may be admitted, as a kind of “boycott” against the IOC’s potential permission to admit them. In doing so, the government wishes to prove that Ukrainian athletes do not belong where the athletes of the ‘aggressor’ countries linger. The government further hopes that the IOC will reconsider its decision and understand that sports cannot and should not condone the numerous murders and war crimes committed by Russia and Belarus. Responding to the reaction of the Ukrainian government, the IOC declared that the decision would harm Ukrainian athletes, but would not stop the bloody war against which all Ukrainians have been fighting for years.

So is sport really independent of politics? When answering this question, one should turn to information about how much money Russia invests in its own athletes, and for which purpose. In 2021, Russia allocated 476 billion rubles (around 5 billion euros) from its budget for sports. For comparison, in 2021, about 7 billion hryvnias (or 175 million euros) were spent on sports by Ukraine, while Germany spent 3.76 billion euros on its athletes. With these numbers, the conclusion that Russia lavishes huge sums on propaganda through sport pursuits, is quite unmistakable.

For Russia, sports remain a key platform for propaganda and the public endorsement of state terrorism. Russian gymnast Ivan Kulyak is a noteworthy example. In March, Kulyak performed at the last tournament to which Russians were admitted - at the stage of the World Cup in Doha, where he won third place - and a bronze medal - on the parallel bars. At the award ceremony, Kulyak took to the podium with the war symbol 'Z'; upon his leotard, a symbol supportive of the invasion of Ukraine, and one which is banned in many EU countries. The International Gymnastics Federation then opened disciplinary proceedings and launched an investigation into the incident.

As for Belarus, this country is an active supporter of Russia in its war against Ukraine. The statement of the Council of Europe - dated March 11, 2022 - states that Russia and its accomplice, Belarus, bear full responsibility for the act of aggression. The participation of Belarus in the 2024 Olympics should therefore be considered unacceptable, given the secondary role that this country plays in terrorist actions against Ukraine.

Until today, as a result of the war between Russia and Ukraine, more than two hundred Ukrainian athletes have perished - among them master of sports in rowing Mykola Gutsalenko, 11-year-old gymnast Kateryna Dyachenko, decorated karateka Taras Bilotskyi, champion of Ukraine in pankration Maksym Benderov, sports tourism development specialist Oleksandr Brychuk, and the internationally-decorated swimmer Denys Chabanchuk (to name just a few). In connection with these tragic events, the 'Yanholy Sportu' [Sporting Angels] website was launched in Ukraine, displaying the names of the many sportsmen and women who died as a result of the war.

The IOC President Thomas Bach has announced that the decision regarding the participation of Russia and Belarus in the Olympics would be made after the summer, as the issue remains “very difficult”. Bach pointed to the perceived injustice of so called 'double standards', arguing: “The blanket prohibition of Russian and Belarusian athletes and artists cannot continue. It is a flagrant violation of human rights. The idea is not that we are going to recognize human rights only to people who are like us and with whom we agree on their actions and on their behavior. The idea is that anyone has the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their passport”. But it should be recalled that today millions of Ukrainians die precisely because of their passport, precisely because of who they are. The current war on the territory of Ukraine is happening - ultimately - because of the discrimination of the Ukrainian people based on their identity. Before answering this question, Thomas Bach should go beyond thinking about the development of sports and look at the situation that is happening as a whole. Nothing in the world can justify the crimes committed by Russia and Belarus on the territory of Ukraine. The neutrality disclaimer cannot be grounds for symbolically justifying Russia or Belarus’ actions.

All this besides the obvious fact that the participation of athletes under the Russian state banner has tainted the Olympic games long beyond the current games. In 2018, the IOC did not allow several Russian athletes to participate in that year’s Winter Olympic Games, due to the multiple instances of Russian athletes having been involved in high-profile cases related to doping fraud. At the same time, other Russian athletes were forced to prove that they meet the IOC&'s criteria, in particular, regarding non-involvement in artificial performance enhancement. The involvement of Russian sporting authorities in cases of fraud was judged to be so direct that, the following year (2019), the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned Russia outright from competing at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Russian athletes competed nonetheless, albeit under the 'Russian Olympic Committee'. Russian state-sponsored actions have long stained the Olympic games, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

But it is that invasion and its ramifications which far outweigh even these prior shameful actions toward the spirit of competition and the elite image of the Olympics. In matters that concern the deaths of innocent people who have to fight every day for their independence and freedom, there cannot be a separation between sports and politics. Sport cannot be outside of politics when the fate of millions of people hangs in the balance. No neutral status can fix the situation, because neutrality does not solve the issue of ending the war.

How can we speak of the neutrality of athletes when Alina Kabaeva, a Russian rhythmic gymnast who justifies military aggression and supports a terrorist regime, will - theoretically, in accordance with the permission granted by the IOC - be able to participate in the 2024 Olympics in Paris? Remember also, that Kabaeva is only one of many possible examples from within the Russian camp. The decision of the IOC directly affects the events taking place today in Ukraine, and the decision to ban the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in the 2024 Olympics can become a springboard for the support of the entire Ukrainian people against the war.

The IOC must act with this in mind.

 

 

Sources:


1. PACE public hearing: excluding athletes from Russia and Belarus from taking part
in the Olympics. URL: https://pace.coe.int/en/news/9046/pace-public-hearing-excluding-athletes-from-russia-and-belarus-from-taking-part-in-the-olympics


2. Q&A regarding the participation of athletes with a Russian or Belarusian passport
in international competitions. URL: https://olympics.com/ioc/news/q-a-on-solidarity-with-ukraine-sanctions-against-russia-and-belarus-and-the-status-of-athletes-from-these-countries


3. Statement on solidarity with Ukraine, sanctions against Russia and Belarus, and
the status of athletes from these countries. URL: https://olympics.com/ioc/news/statement-on-solidarity-with-ukraine-sanctions-against-russia-and-belarus-and-the-status-of-athletes


4. Following a request by the 11th Olympic Summit, IOC issues recommendations for
International Federations and international sports event organisers on the
participation of athletes with a Russian or Belarusian passport in international
competitions. URL: https://olympics.com/ioc/news/ioc-issues-recommendations-for-international-federations-and-international-sports-event-organisers


5. Sports Angels [Yanholy sportu]. URL: https://yangoly-sportu.teamukraine.com.ua/


6. Athletes who died in the war: they should have continued to choose awards, but chose to defend Ukraine [Sportsmeny, yaki zahynuly na viini: maly b dali vyboriuvaty nahorody, ale obraly zakhyst Ukrainy] URL: https://www.radiosvoboda.org/a/30180575.html


7. "We are working": Alina Kabaeva compared Russian propaganda to a
Kalashnikov assault rifle ["Pratsiuiemo": Alina Kabaieva porivniala rosiisku
propahandu z avtomatom Kalashnikova]. URL: https://focus.ua/uk/voennye-novosti/548591-rabotaem-alina-kabaeva-sravnila-rossiyskuyu-propagandu-s-avtomatom-kalashnikova-video


8. Russia Is Banned From 2018 Olympics; Athletes Told To Compete Under Olympic
Flag. URL: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetorch/2017/12/05/568585759/russia-is-banned-from-2018-olympics-athletes-told-to-compete-under-olympic-flag

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