LAUSANNE – Complex questions about if — and how — Russian athletes could return to their competitions ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics looked far from being resolved when sports governing bodies met Wednesday.
Different sports have varying sporting, political and logistical pressures, and there’s a lack of clarity about how to define neutral status for Russian and Belarusian athletes that is mandatory for their return on the field of play.
“Every sport has its own idea. We are far in my opinion to have a common position, it is quite impossible,” Francesco Ricci Bitti, president of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) and a veteran of Olympic politics, said.
The ASOIF annual meeting came two months after the International Olympic Committee gave detailed advice on how individual athletes from Russia and its military ally Belarus could be reintegrated as neutral athletes, despite those countries' ongoing war on Ukraine.
Exactly how that neutrality is being defined is not very much clearer now as key qualification events start for the Olympics that open in July next year.
The IOC in March advised that some Russians and Belarusians could return in individual events but not team sports, if they had not actively supported the war in Ukraine, and are not contracted to “military or national security agencies.”
The IOC also suggested ASOIF and the winter sports umbrella group, AIOWF, could oversee “creating a single independent panel” to run and “harmonize” the neutral status evaluations of hundreds of athletes, coaches and support staff.
That idea was dismissed “strongly and firmly,” Ricci Bitti said, as a conflict of interest for his umbrella group. The Court of Arbitration for Sport is now involved in the process.
IOC president Thomas Bach briefly attended Wednesday and said some governing bodies of the 32-sport Paris program, who have ultimate control over their own events, had proven how Russian and Belarusians could continue to compete.
“You are doing so against the backdrop of the many traditional, I may say, naysayers who want to make people believe that it would never work,” Bach said. He did not speak with reporters when leaving after his speech.
Bach and the IOC led calls within days of the invasion of Ukraine in February of last year to banish Russia from international sport, including to protect the security of athletes.
As the war continued and the 2024 Olympics approached, the IOC and Bach started to suggest it was discrimination to exclude all Russians and Belarusians. If approved to compete, the IOC said, Russian and Belarusians would not be allowed to use their flag, anthem or uniforms in national colors.
Various pressures on the Olympic sports to make the IOC policy work include the influence in sports and governments of Ukraine’s European allies, and which countries are due to host key events.
In gymnastics, a top-tier Summer Games sport where Russians excel, a decision on reintegrating them was pushed back to at least July. World championships that are a key qualifier for Paris start Sept. 30 in Antwerp, Belgium.
On the sporting side, tennis does not want to class doubles and mixed doubles as team sports, Ricci Bitti said, testing the limits of the IOC guidance.
Track and field has taken the strongest stance by excluding all Russians while the International Judo Federation let some Russians compete in Qatar at its worlds this month, an event which was boycotted by Ukraine. The IJF’s honorary president until last year was Vladimir Putin, who is an expert judoka.
The complicated situation in fencing — Bach’s own sport where the long-time governing body president, Kremlin-connected billionaire Alisher Usmanov, stepped aside while under international sanctions — saw several Olympic champions from Russia denied neutral status this month.
They included the daughter of Russian Olympic Committee president Stanislav Pozdnyakov, who then criticized the neutral eligibility process as a “farce” and a “thinly veiled suspension.” Pozdnyakov also warned of a Russian boycott of events.
Swimming awaits advice by September from a panel that includes athletes, World Aquatics executive director Brent Nowicki said Wednesday. The 2024 world championships, in February in Qatar, can be a qualifying path for Paris.
“I’d imagine there’s many people in the room today that are in a much more difficult situation,” Nowicki said.
Olympic sports officials are weighing their decisions while in Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, plus past and current Olympic medalists, continue to insist Russia must be excluded from Paris.
Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo also said there should be no Russian delegation at the Olympics if the war continues.
However, tennis fans in Paris turned on Ukrainian player Marta Kostyuk on Sunday at the French Open, booing her for refusing a post-match handshake with her Belarusian opponent Aryna Sabalenka. Roland Garros also will host the Olympic tennis tournaments next year.
Tennis and cycling have continued, since the war started, to let Russians and Belarusians compete as neutral individuals on their global tours.
“I think it’s up to the fans to be able to express whatever they feel is appropriate,” International Tennis Federation president David Haggerty said Wednesday. “At times there are tensions in the locker room but at times we see Russian and Ukrainian players perhaps playing doubles together."
Ultimately, the IOC can choose to bar Russia from its Olympics, and Bach said in March such a decision could be taken “at the appropriate time at its full discretion.”
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