January 30, 2023

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Zelensky Urges Barring Russian and Belarusian Athletes from 2024 Olympics

3 min read

The Olympic Games in Paris are still two years away, but already there is a question of whether Russian and Belarusian athletes will be allowed to compete under their nations’ flags.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine weighed in on Wednesday, urging the International Olympic Committee to prohibit those athletes’ participation regardless of what flag they carry, days after the committee’s top official expressed a new tone of openness about easing restrictions.

In a phone call with the I.O.C. president, Thomas Bach, Mr. Zelensky said that allowing the athletes to compete under a neutral flag would not be enough to punish Russia.

“Since February, 184 Ukrainian athletes have died as a result of Russia’s actions,” Mr. Zelensky said on the call, according to a readout from the Ukrainian president’s office. “One cannot try to be neutral when the foundations of peaceful life are being destroyed and universal human values are being ignored.”

In February, the I.O.C. recommended that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred from competitions, breaking from the organization’s typical stance that athletes should not be punished for their government’s actions.

In a statement, the organization cited “the integrity of global sports competitions” and “the safety of all the participants” as two factors in the decision, which was issued “with a heavy heart.” There are some situations in which the athletes could be allowed to compete as neutral athletes, the statement said.

But in recent days I.O.C. officials have been unclear about whether Russian and Belarusian athletes will be allowed to compete in the Summer Olympics in 2024. Although the organization has not changed its formal guidance from February, there are signs that it is looking to ease its restrictions.

“We need to explore ways to overcome this dilemma with regard to athletes’ participation and come back to sporting merits and not political interference,” Mr. Bach said in a news conference last week, according to Reuters.

Mr. Bach emphasized that the I.O.C.’s original guidance was for athletes’ safety. “What we never did and did not want to do was prohibit athletes from competing in competitions only due to their passports,” he said, adding that the I.O.C. had not yet set a date by which to make a decision.

In the past, athletes from countries under Olympic sanctions had been allowed to compete under an Olympic flag rather than their national flag. For instance, Russian athletes did so in the Beijing Olympics in February after Russia was found to have been involved in a major doping scandal in the 2014 Olympics. And in 1980, when many nations boycotted the Olympic Games in Russia over its invasion of Afghanistan, some athletes from the boycotting countries competed under neutral flags.

A top U.S. Olympic official this week endorsed considering “a pathway back” for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete under a neutral flag. A group of high-ranking Olympic officials from around the world convened in Lausanne, Switzerland, last week to discuss the issue.

“We agreed that there would now be an exploration and a consultation with stakeholders to see whether there could be a pathway for those individual athletes to come back as neutral,” said Susanne Lyons, chair of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, according to Reuters.