LAUSANNE – Russia's path to sending a team to the Paris Olympics next year became clearer on Thursday amid fierce objections from Ukraine.
The International Olympic Committee indicated on Wednesday it favors officially neutral teams from Russia and its ally Belarus at the 2024 Olympics despite a plea from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to exclude them entirely.
A day later, Russia and Belarus were invited to compete at the Asian Games, a key Olympic qualifier.
Russia normally competes as part of Europe but has a tense relationship with many of the countries set to host qualifying events there. Russia and Belarus have been barred from almost all international competitions in Olympic sports following the invasion of Ukraine.
Zelenskyy has said he told French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country is hosting the Olympics, that Russia should have “no place” there. Ukraine is seeking to rally support against the IOC-brokered plan.
“IOC has been disregarding Russian war crimes, claiming that ‘No athlete should be prevented from competing just because of their passport', while Ukrainian athletes continue to be killed by Russia because of their passports. I urge all sports figures to make their stance known,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
Ukraine boycotted an Olympic qualifier in judo last year when Russians were allowed to compete as neutrals.
In Russia, there was praise for the IOC's approach from Igor Levitin, an aide to President Vladimir Putin who holds influential government and sports posts.
“I think it is already a success. Olympic society understands that the Olympic Games cannot be staged without Russia," said Levitin, who is the senior vice-president of the Russian Olympic Committee, in comments reported by state news agency Tass.
Some Russian officials expressed unhappiness at the IOC declaring it would not allow athletes found to be “actively supporting the war in Ukraine.” ROC president Stanislav Pozdnyakov said on Wednesday he opposed “any restrictions, extra requirements or sanctions.”
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said she backs Russians competing as neutral athletes when her city hosts the Games, without the Russian flag.
“I think it’s a time for athletes and that you shouldn’t deprive athletes of their competition. But I think and I plead, like a large part of the sporting movement, that there isn’t a delegation behind the Russian banner," she told France 2 television.
“Of course the Games are taking place in a geopolitical time. I hope the war in Ukraine will be behind us when we welcome the Paris Games.”
There was no immediate response from the French government, even as other European countries criticized the IOC. British Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan said the IOC's stance was “a world away from the reality of war being felt by the Ukrainian people." In Germany, Interior Minister Nancy Faeser called it “the wrong path.”
The IOC statement on Wednesday referenced the civil war in the former Yugoslavia around the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. The country was under United Nations sanctions so Yugoslav athletes were allowed to compete individually only as “Independent Olympic Participants." They didn't take part in team sports such as soccer and basketball.
That would be stricter than previous IOC measures against Russia in the years-long fallout from one of the largest doping cases in sports history. Russians competed under the name “Olympic Athlete from Russia” at the 2018 Winter Olympics and as ROC in 2021 and 2022, without their country's anthem or flag but with national colors on uniforms.
The Asian Games will be in Hangzhou, China, in September and October, and function as Olympic qualifiers in several sports including archery and boxing. Some other sports host their own Asia-specific qualifying competitions.
“The OCA believes in the unifying power of sport and that all athletes, regardless of their nationality or the passport they hold, should be able to compete in sports competitions,” the OCA said in a statement.
The long-time director general of Kuwait-based OCA, Husain al-Musallam, is also the president of World Aquatics, which is overseeing the core Olympic sport of swimming in the IOC home city Lausanne.
“The OCA has offered to give eligible Russian and Belarusian athletes the opportunity to take part in competitions in Asia, including the Asian Games,” the organization said.
The OCA added it “remains on standby” until the IOC and the individual sports' governing bodies finalize the conditions for Russia and Belarus to compete.
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