On Dec. 8, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, announced the admission of Russians and Belarusians to the 2024 Olympics in France on condition that they compete under a neutral status, with no state symbols.
But Ukrainian athletes are saying the decision doesn’t go far enough – as some of the participants may still support Russia’s invasion despite competing in sports under a neutral flag.
Indeed, within a month of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a Russian gymnast, despite competing under a neutral flag, taped a “Z” symbol onto the front of his uniform when he stood at the podium to take third place at the Apparatus World Cup in Qatar.
“Individual athletes cannot be punished for the actions of their governments,” Bach said. “(Russia’s war on Ukraine is) one war among 28 wars and conflicts that take place in this world, and all other sportsmen compete peacefully with each other.”
Although the teams of these two countries will not be allowed to compete in Olympic sports, and currently only 11 athletes meet the criteria for access to the Olympics (eight Russians and three Belarusians), Ukraine is unsatisfied with the IOC decision.
Ukraine’s acting Minister of Youth and Sports Matvii Bidnyi and Ukrainian athletes prepared an open letter in favor of not allowing Russian athletes to compete.
But so far the IOC has not responded.
In an exclusive interview with Kyiv Post, Bidnyi said that Ukraine still hopes Russians and Belarusians will be prohibited from competing even under “neutral” status – as it still has time to change its decision. The Ukrainian government and sports community are continuing their campaign.
In December, the IOC decided that Russians and Belarusians would still participate in the 2024 Olympics, but as “neutral” athletes. Why did this happen? Is this a Ukrainian diplomatic loss? Do the Russians retain a strong influence in the IOC?
I consider it an important achievement that officially the teams of Russia and Belarus will not be at the Olympics. The membership of the Russian Olympic Committee in the IOC has been suspended due to their provocative decision to include cells from our occupied territories.
The worst thing we’re now seeing is the possibility that at the Olympic Games, there will be people in white clothes with the stamp “AIN” (individual neutral athletes), who are prohibited from expressing any affiliation to the country from which they came.
But, of course, it is fundamentally important for us that among these people there should not be those who openly support Russian aggression and Russian war crimes.
Why did this happen? The thesis that sports is outside of politics is untenable today. This is a populist slogan.
Politics and sports are always an element of the foreign policy of any state – including in the Olympics, where a great deal of money is invested, and where the powerful lobbying resources of a terrorist country, built up for dozens of years, are also concentrated.
Of course, this is an important lesson for us. We should take the lesson to build up our international sports diplomacy.
Can you already say what Ukraine’s main mistake was?
The main mistake that made was not dealing with an issue for the past 30 years – we have no representatives in the structures of international sports federations.
And today we see that in those international federations, where there are Russians in the presidiums – in the positions of presidents and vice-presidents – there, the decision on the return or admission of Russian athletes to participate in competitions is made the fastest.
A typical example is the International Boxing Association, headed by Russian Umar Kremlov.
By decision of the association, Russians can compete now under their own flag there.
In March last year, Great Britain called on the biggest sponsors of the Olympics – such as Coca-Cola, Intel, Samsung, and Visa – to put pressure on the IOC for the participation of Russians and Belarusians in the 2024 Olympics. What do you know about it? Did the Ministry and representatives of Ukraine personally communicate with these sponsors?
So the president, the ministry, and the national Olympic committee addressed the sponsors and the governments of the countries participating in the Olympic Games.
The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, sent relevant letters to the companies that most support the International Olympic Committee.
The BloodyOlympics public campaign is also being launched, which is directed specifically at the sponsors of the Olympics.
It shows that to support the Olympics, in which Russian murderers participate – is to add their logos to Russian uniforms.
There were also statements from 35 sports ministers of the world about the exclusion of Russians and Belarusians.
But the IOC is a fairly conservative organization that is over 120 years old. It very actively emphasizes its independence and autonomy. Sometimes, in my opinion, even its abuses.
They believe that they can ignore some statements and appeals.
Is the admission of Russian and Belarusian athletes under neutral status also a kind of abuse?
We believe that the admission decision is irresponsible.
Because today, when the world is actually on the threshold of the Third World War, it is necessary to understand that every powerful international organization must do its part to stop the aggressors today.
I often resort to the analogy of the Berlin Olympics in 1936, when Hitler was allowed to hold the Olympics and was strengthened by it.
He showcased his power. He represented himself with the help of the film “Olympia.” He showed himself in a bright light, as a leader, and strengthened his authority.
This should not happen again in the 21st century.
Does the IOC have a single argument to support its claim that Russian sports are outside of Russian politics?
So they say that athletes cannot be punished for the actions of their governments.
Excuse me, but which of the Russian athletes opposed the war? Who expressed their position?
Furthermore, today we are fighting against those who actually stood up for Russian aggression – which the international federations are allowing to participate today.
Like taekwondo player Volodymyr Larin.
Today, the International Taekwondo Federation says it has no direct evidence that he supported the military aggression. But there is a link to a video where Larin calls for raising money to support the Russian military fighting against Ukraine.
Even the fact that he is a contractor of the central sports club of the Russian army – which is in direct violation of the neutrality criteria of the International Olympic Federation – is not an adequate enough argument for them.
The National Olympic Committee has addressed the corresponding letter to Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC. We are still waiting for the IOC's decision on this matter because, in its last decision, it assumed responsibility for the final selection and verification of candidates.
We very much hope that this process will be open and transparent – that there will be an opportunity to present one's point of view, provide explanations, and evidence regarding Russian and Belarusian athletes, and hear the arguments of the IOC. So we are continuing our struggle.
How long can the candidate selection and verification process take?
The final composition should be approved by the end of June. That is, a month before the Olympic opening ceremony, there will be a decision.
Can there be among athletes from Russia and Belarus, athletes from the occupied Ukrainian territories, those who switched to the side of Russia?
No. None of these athletes will be at the Olympics. If only because it is not so easy to change sports citizenship. Traitors will not enter the Olympic Games.
You are looking for support from French President Emmanuel Macron, from Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. Can they influence the IOC in any way?
Of course, as the organizers of the Olympic Games, they are responsible for how these Games will go down in history. Like the Berlin Olympics, or like the Moscow Olympics in 1980 – which took place after the invasion of Afghanistan – and was boycotted by the major countries of the world.
But we see that the IOC does not listen to them...
This suggests that there are certain politics.
But what does, for example, Thomas Bach’s statement mean a week before this – in our opinion, irresponsible – decision was made?
He stated that the decision regarding Russians and Belarusians will be made in March.
And then, in one week, a behind-the-scenes decision is made.
Is there an answer to why?
No answer. We can only remember.
Did you personally communicate with Bach?
No, I did not talk to him personally.
The International Olympic Committee communicates with the National Olympic Committees, which represent the sports communities of individual states.
Instead, the IOC mostly ignores the appeal of government officials because it interprets it as an attempt to influence the autonomy of sports. This question, let's say, hangs in the air, and I think that many can only guess why it turned out that way – and why he changed his decision so dramatically.
The appeals of our Ukrainian athletes are also not accepted by the IOC?
They do not publicly respond to their calls.
It is clear that the IOC knows, hears, and understands them. This is also a certain public pressure. As sports functionaries, they cannot disregard the athletes’ opinions.
The greater this pressure, the more weight they’ll place on the decision they make.
Do we plan to raise issues regarding the participation of Iranian athletes? After all, the Russians also use their weapons against Ukraine.
We raised this issue at the level of our sanctions policy. Today we try to talk about how they help and support Russia.
In the field of sports, the IOC does not support such a position regarding Iran.
They say that there are many conflicts in the world today. Particularly in the Middle East.
But they do not pay attention to the fact that between Russia and Ukraine it’s not just some conflict.
This is a full-scale war. An act of terrorism.
What is our plan B if, after all, the Russians and Belarusians participate under the neutral flag?
We don't have plan A, or plan B. We have only one plan. We understand that each of us, each athlete today must do everything to help our country win the most important big victory.
Therefore, all decisions will, of course, be made when we understand all the positions, we are in. And in any case, we will proceed precisely from our state’s interest.
There was talk that the Ukrainian national team might not take part in the Olympics if Russians and Belarusians participate.
They may not participate.
Do you think this would be the right position?
I am saying that there are different arguments. And we will pay attention to each of them.
But if the IOC will simply ignore all the principles of the Olympic movement itself, if we see that representatives of terrorists are allowed into global events, if they are accepted as full participants in the sports movement – how can we afford to participate?
I think that everyone will answer for themselves that it is simply shameful to participate.
It would simply be a betrayal today of those who give their lives so that our athletes have the opportunity to prepare for these games.
Each of us is aware of our responsibility, therefore, in fact, each of us does everything that depends on us, so that in the end, our country benefits from the performances of our athletes.
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