Will Russian And Belarusian Athletes Compete In The Paris 2024 Olympics?

To play or not to play.

That is the question being debated as both the countdown begins for next year’s Olympic Games in Paris and the devastating war in Ukraine grinds on, nearly one year after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked invasion of a neighboring country.

For Ukraine and its supporters, athletes from Russia and Belarus — which has provided military and political support to Moscow — have no right to compete given the death and destruction wrought by Putin’s invasion. In October 2022, Russia’s military began targeting Ukraine’s energy and other infrastructure, leaving millions of Ukrainians in the dark and cold. Russian bombing has turned towns and cities to rubble, the latest targets being Bakhmut and Vuhledar in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainians touched by the invasion speak of unimaginable cruelty with cases reported of torture, rape, summary executions, and children being forcibly transported to Russia, in some cases, to be “reeducated” at special camps. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has said it is inconceivable to have Russian athletes marching as a delegation while “bombs are still raining down on Ukraine.”

The politics of Olympic participation are not only emotionally charged but also complex, with many competing national and diplomatic interests and historic legislation that emphasizes participation as a human right. While there have been Olympic bans and boycotts before, the issue continues to divide both sporting officials and fans, raising tough questions about the responsibility athletes hold for the actions of their governments.

Ukraine Pushes For Russian Ban

Kyiv has launched a public relations blitz to secure backing either for a ban of the Russian and Belarusian Olympic teams, including all its athletes, or failing that, a boycott of the games. While there has been talk of boycotting the Paris Olympics, so far publicly at least only Latvia and Estonia have said they would stay away if Russia and Belarus take part.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said Russia’s presence at the Paris Olympics would be a “manifestation of violence.” “If Olympic sports were killings and missile strikes, then you know which national team would occupy first place,” Zelenskiy said.

He was speaking on February 10 during a virtual meeting of 35 sports ministers, including the United States, Germany, and Australia, who all said they were ready to back an Olympic ban for Russia and Belarus, the strongest such support to date.

Czech ice hockey legend Dominik Hasek is a strong and vocal proponent of a full Russian ban. “Unfortunately, at the moment, every Russian athlete competing in ‘our’ competitions is an excellent advertisement for the Russian war and Russian crimes, and it costs a lot of Ukrainian lives,” he told RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service.

Competing As Neutrals

After the launch of Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, and following a recommendation by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) four days later, Russian and Belarusian athletes were banned from many international competitions. But in January, the IOC announced what appeared to be a major pivot, saying it was exploring “a pathway” to allow Belarusian and Russian athletes to compete in international sporting events as neutral athletes.

It’s a stance the IOC has taken in the past. Russian athletes competed at three consecutive Winter and Summer Olympics between 2018 and 2022 without their anthem or flag because of widespread doping and state-backed cover-ups.

The IOC dismissed calls then for Russian athletes to be banned outright. Now, the Olympic body is insisting that no decisions on athletes’ participation — not least in Paris next year — has been made, and none of its previous statements have addressed the issue.

Speaking to RFE/RL, the IOC Media Department said: “The topic under discussion is about [Russian and Belarusian athletes] participation in international competitions in Asia in the forthcoming summer sport season. In none of the documents published by the IOC will you find a reference to the Olympic Games Paris 2024 for athletes with a Russian or Belarusian passport.”

A History Of Bans And Boycotts

While no decision about the inclusion of Russian or Belarusian athletes has been made, the IOC has said any potential boycott of the event would violate the Olympic Charter.

However, some analysts dismiss such claims and note past Olympic bans and boycotts. “The proposed ban is not against athletes of Russian origin, of which there are many in other nations, not least Ukraine,” said Edward Hunter Christie, a former NATO official with experience in analyzing international sanctions. “The ban is on a specific national team which is made up of citizens of that nation, and it has legal precedent, for example, bans on South Africa’s participation in international sports in the apartheid era,” Christie explained in written comments to RFE/RL.

While it is rare, athletes have been banned from competing at the Olympics in the past, although its application is patchy and far from consistent. As Christie mentioned, South Africa and all its athletes were barred before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and not readmitted until shortly before the 1992 Barcelona Olympics following the collapse of the apartheid system.

More recently, Afghanistan and all its athletes were banned from the 2000 Sydney Olympics due to the ban on female athletes instituted by the Taliban, which was deposed in October 2001 following the U.S.-led invasion of the country after the 9/11 attacks a month earlier in the United States.

Pertinent to Ukraine today, many countries guilty of instigating wars have not been welcomed at the Olympics. In 1920, two years after the end of World War I, the losing Central Powers — Austria, Bulgaria, Turkey, Hungary, and Germany — did not compete at the Antwerp Olympics. Those same countries were also barred from the first Winter Olympics, held in 1924, in Chamonix, France. Germany was again barred, along with Japan, from the London Olympics in 1948, three years after the end of World War II.

Other times, however, aggressors have faced few repercussions from the IOC and countries have not been consistent about boycotts, often being led by their political allegiances. In 1956, only three countries — Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands — boycotted the Melbourne Olympics after Soviet forces crushed an anti-Soviet uprising that year in Hungary. A water polo match between the Soviets and Hungarians was marred by violence and later referred to as the Blood in the Water match. The 1956 games were also boycotted by Egypt and its allies in protest at the invasion of their country by Britain, France, and Israel during the Suez Crisis.

When Soviet-led troops marched into Czechoslovakia in August 1968 to put down the reform-minded Prague Spring, there was no boycott that year at the Olympics in Mexico City in October. To protest the invasion, gymnast Vera Caslavska, Czechoslovakia’s most decorated Olympic athlete and a vocal critic of communism who was persecuted for her dissent, held a silent protest during a medal ceremony, looking down and away when the national anthem of the Soviet Union was played.

In 1980, the Soviet Union not only competed but hosted the Olympic games in Moscow despite its invasion of Afghanistan. The United States led the largest-ever Olympic boycott, comprising more than 60 nations. Some other countries including Britain competed but under Olympic flags. In response, the Soviet Union and 14 Eastern Bloc countries boycotted the next Olympics, in Los Angeles in 1984.

In 1992, with Yugoslavia wracked by civil war and under UN sanctions, the IOC let its athletes compete at the Barcelona games as Independent Olympic Participants in neutral uniforms. The IOC has suggested that this could be a possible template for Russian athletes to follow next year in Paris.

With the IOC considering a compromise to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate, the Swiss-based organization does not appear willing to entertain talk of a boycott. IOC chief Thomas Bach has spoken of a violation of the Olympic Charter, not by Russia, but by Ukraine, for its call to other National Olympic Committees (NOC) to boycott the Paris games.

Bach, a German lawyer, was a gold-medalist fencer who campaigned unsuccessfully against West Germany joining the boycott for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Bach would later say that it convinced him that “a sports boycott serves nothing.”

In a letter to Ukraine’s National Olympic Committee President Vadym Huttsayt, seen by Reuters, Bach said claims that allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes back into the Olympics would promote the invasion were “defamatory.”

“Therefore, your letter…to your fellow NOCs, to the International Federations, IOC Members, and to future Olympic hosts, pressuring them in an attempt to publicly influence their decision making, has been perceived by the vast majority of them as, at the very least, extremely regrettable,” Bach reportedly wrote.

Collective Punishment

Some legal experts have said the question of whether Russian and Belarusian athletes should compete at the Olympics ultimately hinges on what degree individuals are answerable for the actions of their governments.

The IOC has been criticized by UN experts for its original recommendation on February 28, 2022 — four days after the start of the invasion — that “to protect the integrity of global sports competitions” it was recommending no athletes from Russia or Belarus be allowed to compete in “international competitions.”

Experts from the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said the February 2022 IOC recommendation amounted to “direct discrimination, because athletes should not be discriminated against on the basis on their nationality.”

The two experts, Alexandra Xanthaki, special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, and Ashwini K.P., special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, have since welcomed the IOC’s fresh recommendation, with Xanthaki taking to Twitter on January 31 to applaud the move.

Asked on Twitter whether an exception can be made for a country that is “committing genocide,” Xanthaki responded: “No, we cannot. Because they are not the ones deciding on the genocide. They are the ones who have to obey, whether they like it or not.”

To support her decision, Xanthaki cited the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of “race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin,” and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which “ensures the enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights.”

Besides disputing Xanthaki’s interpretation of those UN documents, expert Christie noted that sanctions often impact average citizens to pursue a change of state behavior. “Sanctions typically embed a degree of deliberate collective punishment, with the aim of shaking the consciousness of the targeted nation, in this case Russia, into understanding, at a societal level, that its state is acting criminally and that the world wants it to stop,” Christie explained to RFE/RL in written remarks.

Former hockey star Hasek said that, whether they like it or not, Russian athletes are used by the state. “Every citizen, without exception — and it doesn’t matter if he is a bricklayer, teacher, farmer, or athlete — represents his country, and that country uses that citizen and his achievements to achieve its goals,” Hasek told RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service.

“Unfortunately, Russia’s current goals are an imperialist war of conquest and the destruction or subjugation of Ukraine. And, of course, there are many crimes associated with it,” he said. “So, the achievements of every Russian athlete without exception — it doesn’t matter if he is a Putin supporter or not — are used for the benefit of these crimes.”

Rather than just being used by the state, some Russian athletes have actively voiced support for Putin’s military campaign in Ukraine. Russian Olympic swimmer Evgeny Rylov, who won two gold medals at Tokyo in 2021, was suspended in April 2022 for nine months by the sport’s world governing body, FINA, after attending a rally in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Rylov was among a number of athletes present at the rally, hosted by Putin at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium in March 2022. They were garbed in clothing emblazoned with the letter Z, a Russian pro-war symbol.

Russian gymnast Ivan Kulyak also wore the letter Z on his chest during the Artistic Gymnastics World Cup in Doha in 2022. Kulyak, who won a bronze in the parallel bars, was later banned from competition for one year.

Nikita Nagornyy, a member of the men’s gymnastics team that won gold at the last Olympics in Tokyo, is the chief of staff of the Young Army Cadets, a pro-military youth movement established after Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Other Bans On Russian Teams In Soccer And Hockey

Outside of the Olympic world, other international sports bodies have employed a variety of approaches to deal with Russian teams and athletes. In February 2022, FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, and UEFA, the comparative European body, banned Russian clubs and national teams “until further notice.” That meant no World Cup in Qatar last year for Russia and its club teams are not welcome at any of the continent’s top tournaments, the UEFA Champions League, Europa League, or the Europa Conference League. The 2022 Champions League final was not played in St. Petersburg but moved to Paris instead. UEFA and FIFA have allowed Belarusian clubs and the national team to compete but under strict conditions.

In January, UEFA stripped Kazan, the capital of the Russian republic of Tatarstan, of the right to host this summer’s Super Cup, which pits the winners of the Champions League against the winners of the Europa League, due to Russia’s ongoing invasion.

Because of bans, national teams from Belarus and Russia did not compete at the men’s ice hockey world championships in Finland in May 2022, the world swimming championships in Budapest in June 2022, or the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon.

London’s Wimbledon Championships was the only Grand Slam tennis tournament to ban Russian and Belarusian players in 2022; however, it reportedly considered dropping that ban this year after being fined $1 million for the move, according to Britain’s Telegraph newspaper.

The Russian-led International Boxing Association (IBA) announced on October 5, 2022, it would reverse a ban on amateur boxers from Russia and Belarus and allow them to compete with national flags and anthems in events with immediate effect. Russian energy giant Gazprom is the biggest sponsor of the IBA, whose president is Russian Umar Kremlev. That move has sparked a boycott by boxers from the United States, Ireland, Sweden, and Canada, Reuters reported on February 15.

While the legal and political debates on whether Russian athletes have the right to compete will continue, many Ukrainian athletes, some of them Olympic hopefuls, have already paid the ultimate price.

“Ukrainian decathlete Volodymyr Androshchuk will not be representing his country at the Paris Olympics because he was just killed by the Russian armed forces. In other news, the IOC announces that Russian athletes are welcome in Paris,” Timothy Snyder, a U.S. historian at Yale University and author of several books on Eastern Europe, wrote on Twitter on February 1.

Androshchuk, a top decathlete who volunteered to serve in the Ukrainian armed forces, died in fighting near Bakhmut, the acting president of Ukraine’s Athletics Federation, Yevhen Pronin, wrote on his Facebook page on January 25.

At least 220 Ukrainian athletes and coaches have died as a result of Russia’s invasion, according to Ukraine’s Olympics chief Huttsayt, with over 340 sports facilities damaged or destroyed.

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036