February 2, 2023

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Zelensky calls for banning Russian and Belarusian athletes from the 2024 Olympics

There are still two years to go until the Olympic Games in Paris, but already the question arises as to whether Russian and Belarusian athletes will be allowed to compete under their nations’ flags.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine intervened on Wednesday, urging the International Olympic Committee to ban these athletes from participating, regardless of which flag they fly, days after the committee’s top official gave a new tone of candor about easing restrictions had expressed.

In a phone call with IOC President Thomas Bach, Mr Zelensky said allowing athletes to compete under a neutral flag would not be enough to punish Russia.

“Since February, 184 Ukrainian athletes have died as a result of Russia’s actions,” Mr. Zelenskyy said on the call, according to a complaint from the Ukrainian President’s office. “One cannot try to remain neutral when the foundations of peaceful life are being destroyed and universal human values ​​are being ignored.”

In February, the IOC recommended banning Russian and Belarusian athletes from competitions, breaking with the organization’s typical stance that athletes should not be punished for their government’s actions.

In a statement, the organization cited “the integrity of global sports competitions” and “the safety of all participants” as two factors in the decision, which was made “with a heavy heart”. There are some situations where the athletes could compete as neutral athletes, the statement said.

But in recent days, IOC officials have been unsure whether Russian and Belarusian athletes will be allowed to compete in the 2024 Summer Olympics. Although the organization has not changed its formal guidance from February, there are signs it plans to relax its restrictions.

“We must look for ways to overcome this dilemma in terms of athlete participation and return to sporting merit and not political interference,” Mr Bach told a news conference last week, according to Reuters.

Mr. Bach stressed that the IOC’s original guidelines were for the safety of athletes. “What we never did and didn’t want to do was ban athletes from competing just because of their passports,” he said, adding that the IOC has not yet set a date by which a decision should be made.

Historically, athletes from countries under Olympic sanctions were allowed to compete under an Olympic flag instead of their national flag. For example, Russian athletes did so at the Beijing Olympics in February after it was discovered that Russia was involved in a major doping scandal at the 2014 Olympics. And in 1980, when many nations boycotted the Olympic Games in Russia because of the invasion of Afghanistan, some athletes from the boycotting countries competed under neutral flags.

A senior US Olympic official this week advocated considering a “way back” for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete under the neutral flag. A group of senior Olympic officials from around the world gathered in Lausanne, Switzerland last week to discuss the issue.

“We agreed that there will now be an investigation and consultation with stakeholders to see if there could be a way for these individual athletes to return as neutral,” said Susanne Lyons, Chair of the Olympic and Paralympic Committees of the United States, according to Reuters.