IOC President Thomas Bach’s attempt to get Russian and Belarusian athletes competing under a neutral flag at the 2024 Olympics Games in Paris has brought European politicians to the fore. Boycotts are being discussed.
“It’s painful but my opinion is clear — I am on the side of Ukraine. It is not the time to shake hands with Russian athletes. It’s not ethical,” said Gunta Vaicule, a Latvian sprinter and Chairwoman of the Athletes’ Commission of the Latvian Olympic Committee (LOK) to DW.
The 27-year-old is currently preparing for the Games in Paris next year, but the discussion about Russian and Belarusian athletes potentially competing in the world’s biggest sporting event makes Vaicule’s blood run cold.
As a result of the war in Ukraine, athletes from Russia and Belarus have been banned from international competitions. With a few exceptions, such as tennis, this also applies to those competing as neutral athletes. Ukraine threatened an Olympic boycott, but wants to avoid it if Russian and Belarusian athletes can be prevented from competing at the 2024 Games in the French capital.
Latvia: Russia must be isolated
Vaicule, who competed at the 2014 Games in Rio de Janeiro, is not only concerned with her own thoughts on the matter. She sees IOC President Thomas Bach’s plan as having a much broader political dimension to the detriment of her country, which borders with Russia and Belarus, and the entire Baltic region.
“After February 24 , we Latvians don’t feel as safe. We remember what happened to us under the Soviet Union. And I have to do everything in my power to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again. I can’t stop the war machine, but I have to somehow influence it,” said Vaicule.
The highest circles in the Latvian government support Vaicule’s views. “To allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in the next Olympic Games is immoral and wrong,” emphasizes Edgars Rinkevics, Latvia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Should Russia continue their war against Ukraine, it must be isolated. “Like all tyrannies, Russia uses sport for political purposes. The IOC should not be complicit in Russian propaganda efforts,” said Rinkevics.
In a detailed statement — signed by Zorzs Tikmers, President of the Latvian Olympic Committee (NOC) — the Latvian Olympic Committee also left no doubt about their stance: “The position of the Latvian Olympic Committee was, is and remains unchanged and fundamental — as long as there is a war in Ukraine, the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in the Olympic Games, regardless of the flag, is not acceptable.”
Denmark’s Minister for Sports and Culture Jakob Engel-Schmidt shares the same view. Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas even threatened to withdraw her country from the 2024 Games. “The participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes is simply wrong. So a boycott is a next step.”
IOC rebukes boycott threat
Meanwhile, the IOC said the threat of boycotts were contrary to the foundations of the Olympic Movement and the principles they stand for.
“A boycott is a violation of the Olympic Charter, which requires all NOCs to participate in the Games of the Olympics by sending athletes,” read the statement.
The path to the Games for Russian and Belarusian athletes could be open, even if only under a neutral flag. A decision has yet to be made though.
However, the IOC did say that neutral athletes would have to prove they had “no identification with their country and NOCs.” How the athletes are to prove their neutrality is still unclear, but criteria for this are being worked out. The IOC also cited that in consultation with federations and athlete representatives a “large majority of participants” were in favor of such a move.
“If we could identify neutral athletes — that could be a solution. If you could show me a Russian athlete who hasn’t received money or support from the Russian government since the beginning of the war and condemns their crimes — then we could consider competing with them,” said sprinter Vaicule.
“The truth is though, that Russia and Belarus use their athletes to build their propaganda machine that fuels the war in Ukraine. They are the weapons of their government.”
Huge political resistance
Like Latvia, sports federations in Northern Europe are opposed to the possible return of athletes from Russia and Belarus.
“The situation with the war in Ukraine hasn’t changed,” wrote the National Olympic Committee, the Paralympic Committee and the sports federations of the nordic countries in a joint letter at the end of January 2023 to the IOC. The leaders of the federations of in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden as well as Aland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands all signed the letter.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has also stepped into the debate, telling French media in early February that athletes should be banned “while war continues.”
The political resistance is big. And Poland, which has direct borders with Belarus and Ukraine, cannot imagine a clash of the respective athletes in Paris either.
“We want the Olympics to be held without Russians and Belarusians, but not without Poles, Ukrainians or Latvians,” Kamil Bortniczuk, Polish Minister of Sport and Tourism, told Polish radio station RMF FM, referring to a possible boycott of the Paris Olympics. “The Russian team has never been neutral and never will be. If the IOC thinks it will be different this time, it is naive.”
Russian propaganda machine
For Russia, sport is part of the propaganda machine.
“That’s what we’re pointing to in our informal discussions,” said Bortniczuk, who apparently can think of other, more rigorous options. “I think the ultimatum is the hardest card we have. So we will pull it if there is no other option. I think we still have so much time that we should give the IOC a chance to self-reflect.”
On February 10, 40 European sports ministers are due to meet in London, where the IOC request will be discussed.
“I think we will emphasize very strongly in the statement we deliver after the meeting (on Friday) that participation would be a victory for the Russians,” Bortniczuk said. And that should be prevented in any case.
This article was originally written in German.
Author: Jörg Strohschein