As we pass the one-year mark of Ukraine sacrificing a great part of a magnificent generation on the altar of democracy, we should be cognizant of all the fronts this struggle must be fought, including on the sports-lines. 

Consequently, the sports ministers of 35 nations, including the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, as well as various Nordic and Eastern European countries, were correct to hold a summit (on Feb. 10) and formally object (on Feb. 22) to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) opening the door for Russian athletes to compete as “neutrals” next year in Paris. 

As the West's most prominent government sports ministers realize, allowing Russian participation in any form undermines the IOC’s mission of promoting of world peace through sport.

Less than a year ago, the President of the IOC, Thomas Bach, announced: “The horrifying images and reports of the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army shocked the world. Every day we are more devastated by seeing so much human suffering.” 

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Therefore, last Feb. 28, the IOC recommended banning Russian and Belarusian athletes.  Given the carnage is only accelerating in the lead-up to the Paris games, it is shocking that the same organization is undermining their initial reaction as well as the peace that allows for high-level play.  

President Zelensky, who suffers with every defender lost, recognizes: “There is no such thing as neutrality when a war like this is going on” and “any neutral flag of Russian athletes is stained with blood.” Zelensky also stresses that Russia should not benefit from limiting the opportunities of Ukrainians who would otherwise be able to bring their talents to world sports and relayed, during the summit, how 228 Ukrainian athletes and coaches have been killed. 

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The Russian Deputy Defense Minister who oversaw the supposed restoration of occupied Mariupol after its destruction by Kremlin forces is suspected of taking a 1 million ruble bribe.

Ukraine deserves more than the lip service the IOC has provided by saying they intend to “strengthen the full and unwavering commitment to solidarity with the Ukrainian athletes.”  Any semblance of solidarity means sidelining Russia when the Olympics is a field of honor Russia has not merited the right to return to.

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From their origin in ancient Greece, the Olympics have served as a beacon of Western culture. With this in mind, the IOC should recognize how Russia’s president has characterized his war as one with the West, which he argues is “moving toward open satanism.” If this was just an absurd political theory that would be one thing. However, Putin has acted with genocidal ambition based on his outlook. Consequently, severe sanctions from Western institutions remain critical.

The façade of sanctions

While economic sanctions are a double-edged sword, a cost-free and moral punishment would be to curtail Russia’s ability to excel in athletics on the world stage. It is a front Putin deeply cares about, as evidenced by his effort to secure the 2014 Sochi games and launching his massive attack a day after the Beijing games so as not to overly offend China. 

The IOC also seems to forget that Russia broke the modern Olympic truce by invading just before the March 2022 Paralympic games. It seems Russia’s only punishment will be to miss those Paralympics, a bargain Putin assuredly feels satisfied with.

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Moreover, “neutral status” is hardly a sanction. Russia has not competed under its own flag since Rio de Janeiro and each cycle since highlighted how their athletes represented nothing other than their country’s interests.

In 2018, when playing as the “Olympic athletes from Russia,” Russia's hockey team won gold and during the medal ceremony, which mandated the Olympic theme be played, the team disregarded the sanction by exuberantly singing the Russian national anthem. Afterwards, Ilya Kovalchuk (a former NHL #1 draft pick) told Russian TV “Everyone knows we are not athletes of Russia — we are Russians.” The moment cracked the façade that IOC wrist-slaps mean anything. 

Similarly, sanctions hardly mattered in Beijing, where Putin met with President Xi prior to the opening ceremony while various Western diplomats boycotted. Afterward, Russia counted all 32 of its medals as national accomplishments and seemingly revels in its status as being an anti-Western pariah that defies the rules and gets away with it. In Paris 2024, Russian athletes will once again serve as tools for Putin’s worldview.  The IOC should realize going from mass-doping to mass-murder is an escalation that crosses all lines. 

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Olympic athletes are commonly described as “heroic” because of sports' transcendent nature, which is often symbolic of ritualistic battle.  However, each Ukrainian taking up arms against a modern-day Goliath are heroes who merit much more than the accolades that will come to those playing in Paris. Such warriors warrant comparison to the mythical Olympians, whose influence, in innumerable ways, led to the development and preservation of the Western world Putin so despises.

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