The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

IOC seeks ‘a pathway back to inclusion’ for athletes from Russia and Belarus

IOC President Thomas Bach is leading a push to find a way to allow athletes from Russia and Belarus to take part in the 2024 Paris Olympics. (Denis Balibouse/Keystone/AP)
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The International Olympic Committee is exploring ways to loosen its bans on athletes from Russia and Belarus, which would allow them to participate in the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics, most likely as independent competitors.

The IOC sanctioned the countries not long after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, barring Russia and Belarus from hosting international sports competitions, prohibiting their flags or colors from being displayed at events and urging all Olympic sports organizations to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes. But as the war has dragged on, IOC President Thomas Bach increasingly has expressed concern that the bans are unfairly punishing athletes who have nothing to do with the war.

“This question of the participation of athletes is very different from the questions of sanctions for their government,” Bach said after last week’s IOC executive board meeting. “The question of athletes’ participation was never part and could not be part of the sanctions because the condition of the Olympic Movement was, always is and remains that athletes [should] not be tarnished for acts of their government as long as they do not contribute to it or support it.”

The idea of allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes in Paris was discussed extensively at both the executive board meeting and last weekend’s 32-person Olympic Summit in Switzerland that included top IOC executives, sports federation heads and Russian Olympic Committee President Stanislav Pozdnyakov. And while no conclusions were reached, the board and summit attendees insisted the IOC begin talks with the leaders of all countries’ Olympic committees and individual sports organizations to find what Bach called “a pathway back to inclusion.”

A decision will have to be made soon because many qualifying events for Paris will begin in the spring.

With doping ban set to end, Russia finds itself even more of an outcast

Susanne Lyons, chair of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee board who also attended the summit, said on a Monday media call that she supports studying ways for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete at the Paris Olympics but only if they are clearly “neutral” and not affiliated in any way with their countries. During the Tokyo and Beijing Games, USOPC officials complained that Russia’s two-year Olympic ban for a state-run doping program hardly felt like a punishment as Russian athletes wore their country’s colors and participated as a Russian team.

“It was a little loosey-goosey the last time,” she said.

But finding the right solution will be challenging. Bach and Lyons said athletes who have not expressed support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should be allowed to compete, though neither seemed to have an easy answer for how that could be determined. At some events, Russian athletes have displayed the letter “Z,” which is recognized in Russia as a symbol of support for the war.

It “is going to be impossible to figure out how they would monitor it,” Lyons said.

In recent months, Bach has expressed discomfort with the bans on athletes from Russia and Belarus, saying they were put in place not for Russia’s invasion but because some countries immediately barred Russian athletes from competitions and the IOC does not want governments to make political decisions about sports eligibility.

“The qualification for sports events must be on sporting merits, not on political interference,” he said last week.

He said he worries that the bans on athletes from Russia and Belarus are damaging the Olympics’ larger intent of peacefully unifying the world through sports and fretted that keeping those athletes from the Games will set a precedent that could tear the Olympics apart.

“Today it’s Russia and Belarus. Tomorrow it’s the next country, and then there are other countries coming back with counter-sanctions,” he said. “Look at what is happening right now in the world of economy or in other areas. Then there would be no global sports anymore.”