GENEVA — The question of if and how Russia competes at the Olympics hangs over the 2024 Paris Summer Games.
Just as it has now for five straight Olympics during Thomas Bach’s leadership of the IOC, whose support this week for some Russians to compete in Paris was publicly challenged Friday by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Russia and its athletes have been at risk of being banned - though ultimately competed - at each Olympics since the steroid-tainted 2014 Sochi Winter Games that was Bach’s first as president of the International Olympic Committee.
This time it is Russia waging war on Ukraine. Previously it was Russian state-backed doping and then Russian authorities trying to cover up evidence of that scandal.
Zelenskyy wants Russia excluded from taking part in Paris while its military is occupying and attacking his country. He stressed that this week in talks with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Ukraine’s sports minister first warned on Thursday of boycotting the Olympics. That was after the IOC detailed its preferred pathway to let Russians who have not openly supported the war to qualify for Paris and compete as neutral athletes against Ukrainians.
PHOTOS: Russia issue looms for Paris Olympics, Zelenskyy rebukes IOC
“It is obvious that any neutral flag of Russian athletes is stained with blood. I invite Mr. Bach to Bakhmut,” Zelenskyy said in a video address, referring to the city in eastern Ukraine wrecked by the war. “So that he could see with his own eyes that neutrality does not exist.”
The IOC was more strident on Russia when the military invasion started within days of the Beijing Winter Games closing ceremony. It was an egregious breach of the United Nations-backed Olympic Truce that is prized by Bach.
Last February, the IOC recommended “with a heavy heart” sports bodies exclude Russia and Belarus from hosting and competing “in order to protect the integrity of global sports competitions and for the safety of all the participants.”
It could not be fair for Russians to continue competing while “many athletes from Ukraine are prevented from doing so because of the attack on their country,” the IOC said last Feb. 28.
Now, 18 months before the Paris opening ceremony and as qualifying ramps up in the 32 sports, the IOC’s revised public stance has provoked anger from Ukraine.
“If we are not heard, I do not rule out the possibility that we will boycott and refuse participation in the Olympics,” Ukrainian sports minister Vadym Guttsait wrote Thursday on his Facebook account.
One of Ukraine’s top medal prospects does not want to share the stage with Russians - even if such a symbol of peaceful tolerance is exactly how the IOC sees its “unifying mission” to bring all 206 national Olympic teams together.
“They died for me, really they don’t exist in my life,” said Yaroslava Mahuchikh, the high jumper whose rivalry from 2019-21 with Russian champion Mariya Lasitskene made theirs a standout event.
Mahuchikh told German broadcaster DW Sports this week that Ukrainian athletes “will do everything that is possible” to keep out athletes from Russia, which she called a “terrorist state.”
In Bach’s home country Germany, the Athleten Deutschland group said Friday many of its members find it “difficult to imagine contesting competitions against Russian athletes under the current conditions.”
“No athlete should be prevented from competing just because of their passport,” the IOC stressed Wednesday, though this was often not true in Olympic history.
Germany and Japan, the aggressors of World War II, were not invited to the 1948 London Olympics. South Africa was excluded from 1964 through 1988 because of its racist Apartheid laws.
The IOC points instead to the more recent example of Yugoslavians competing at the 1992 Barcelona Games as “independent athletes” while the nation was under UN sanctions during a civil war.
Bach wants to separate athletes from the actions of their government, and has called the situation a dilemma for a stated aim to “always embrace human diversity and never to exclude others.”
That philosophy rankles with Zelenskyy, who can be a compelling advocate for a blanket ban on Russia that was resisted when demanded in the past decade by athletes, the World Anti-Doping Agency or activist groups.
If Russians are allowed to compete, their path to Olympic qualification likely will go through Asia due to Russia‘s tense relations with its European neighbors.
Paris is the last of six Olympics for Bach’s presidency before hitting his 12-year term limit in 2025. A presidency that began in September 2013 with an instant congratulatory phone call from President Vladimir Putin has always had a major Russian theme.
After the Sochi laboratory doping scheme was detailed in 2016, Russia sent a limited team - though still nearly 300 athletes - to the Rio Janeiro Games and has been denied its flag and anthem at each Olympics since.
Yet while Russians always were at the Olympics, they were banned entirely from track and field’s world championships last July in Eugene, Oregon.
“The world is horrified by what Russia has done, aided and abetted by Belarus,” World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said within days of the war starting. “Sport has to step up and join these efforts to end this war and restore peace. We cannot and should not sit this one out.”
Track’s ongoing Russia ban excludes Lasitskene, the three-time defending champion in high jump. Last year she wrote an open letter to Bach, who could not defend his team fencing title at the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of the West German boycott after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
“I have no doubts,” she wrote, “that you don’t have the courage and dignity to lift the sanctions against Russian athletes.”
This week, Bach set governing bodies of some Olympic sports on the path to do just that.
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