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Russia’s sports exile and the controversy surrounding ‘neutral’ Russian athletes

For the past year, Russia has remained excluded from many international sporting competitions, losing hosting rights as well as rights to compete. Just four days after the first Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had recommended excluding Russian and Belarusian athletes from events “to protect the integrity of global sports competitions and for the safety of all the participants”, reported The Associated Press.

But that may change soon. As the Paris Olympics draws closer, the IOC has shifted its emphasis to what it says is its duty to avoid discriminating against anyone based on nationality, and to create a path for Russians and Belarusians to compete as neutral athletes without national symbols, reported AP.

However, according to Reuters, currently, 34 countries including the United States, Britain and France have officially opposed this move, pledging their support for banning Russian and Belarusian athletes from international competitions.

How have Russia and Russian athletes been impacted by the war?

Less than a day after the first Russian tanks entered Ukraine, sporting organisations sprung to action. UEFA shifted the final of its flagship club tournament, the Champions League, from St Petersburg to Paris, and Formula One cancelled the Russian Grand Prix. Later, UEFA would go as far as excluding Russian and Belarussian clubs from European club competition.

The IOC would soon follow suit, barring Russian and Belarussian athletes from participating in international events. After Poland refused to play Russia in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers, FIFA excluded the Russian teams from Qatar 2022, just four years after Russia hosted the World Cup and made it as far as the quarterfinals. Russians would also be excluded at Wimbledon 2022.

However, some Russian athletes still managed to compete in sporting events around the world. The International Judo Federation continued to allow Russia and Belarus to compete under the flag of the federation. Russian tennis players also participated in the French and US Opens, including 2021 US Open Champion Daniil Medvedev, as neutral athletes.

What is the IOC’s latest proposal?

The IOC’s latest proposal to allow Russian and Belarussian athletes to compete comes on the back of some other sporting associations allowing individual athletes to play as neutral athletes, not representing their respective nations. On Wednesday (February 22), the IOC emphasised that the Olympics cannot be divisive and exclude athletes.

“This (the war) is the realm of politics. But the Olympic Games can set an example for a world where everyone respects the same rules and one another …They can open the door to dialogue and peace-building in ways that exclusion and division do not”, read the IOC statement as reported by Reuters.

While this is happening under very different circumstances, Russians have competed as neutral athletes before. At risk of being banned at each Olympics since 2014 when widescale reports of state sponsored doping was reported, in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Russian athletes competed under the “Russian Olympic Committee” (ROC) flag – a white flag with the Olympics rings.

What has the opposition to this move been about?

While 34 countries have so far officially registered their opposition to Russian participation, Ukraine remains its most vehement opponent. It has threatened to boycott the Olympics altogether if Russian athletes are allowed to participate, reported Reuters.

The opposition to IOC’s proposals are on a few specific grounds. First, Ukraine claims that more than 220 of its athletes have been killed in the war, and hundreds of sports facilities lie in ruins. In such circumstances, allowing Russian athletes who remain unimpacted in these ways would be unfair. Second, this will not be an unprecedented move. Previously, Germany and Japan were barred from participating in the 1948 Olympics for their role in World War II.

Finally, there is a tangible risk of the Olympic Games becoming key to Russian war propaganda. For instance, Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak taped a “Z” symbol to his chest while standing on the podium next to the Ukrainian winner at an event in Qatar last March. The “Z” symbol, found on Russian military vehicles and equipment, has been used to intimidate anyone opposing the war in Russia and has its origins with the Nazis. While Kuliak was banned for a year, such incidents, especially if they happen in the Olympics, can become a much bigger deal.

“If, God forbid, the Olympic principles are destroyed and Russian athletes are allowed to participate in any competitions or the Olympic Games, it’s just a matter of time before the terrorist state forces them to play along with the war propaganda,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told a summit of sports ministers and officials from more than 30 countries this month, reported AP.

However, for the IOC, while individual athletes might be sanctioned for their specific actions, to continue to deny all Russians and Belarussians for the actions of their state, regardless whether they personally support the war or not, would be discriminatory.

What is next?

On one hand, it risks alienating Ukraine and inviting what would surely be a highly contentious boycott. On the other, its risks plunging sports into its biggest crisis since the heydays of the Cold War where boycotts were common and the sporting world was deeply polarised. For instance, the last major Olympic boycotts came when the United States boycotted the Moscow Games of 1980 followed by a Soviet Union boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Whatever the IOC decides, it must do so soon. Qualifications for the 2024 Olympics have already begun in some sports with many more soon joining the fray. If Russian and Belarussian athletes will indeed be allowed to participate, a decision has to be made in time for them to be able to qualify in the first place.

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