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‘Athletes are alone in this chaos’: the sharp divide over Russia and the Olympics

Russia’s fencers might be headed for Paris. Its shot putters might not. But the Olympic community has definitely hit a hurdle.

With war in Ukraine still raging and the Paris Olympics just a year away, the question of whether Russian and Belarusian athletes will be permitted to compete in international events is dividing the sporting world.

It has also created a quagmire of competing arguments for the International Olympic Committee, which organises the games, pitting it against some of its leading member federations and drawing in dozens of foreign ministries and the UN.

“I want to perform at the Olympics. But as a citizen of Ukraine, I can’t even imagine how to stand next to representatives of the Russian Federation,” Olga Kharlan, a Ukrainian fencer and Olympic gold medallist, told journalists last week.

The issue is coming to a head as qualifying events for Paris 2024 get under way. But the governing bodies of the dozens of sports that make up the games remain divided.

The UK’s Wimbledon Championships said on Friday it would reverse its ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes, who may now compete as neutrals in the tennis tournament. The WTA and ATP, the women’s and men’s professional tours, whose rankings determine qualification for the Olympics, described the decision as “a workable solution which protects the fairness of the game”.

The International Fencing Federation (FIE) voted last month to reinstate Russian and Belarusian athletes following a ban in the early days of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The decision has proven so controversial that the German fencing federation said it would no longer host a women’s world cup event planned for May and more than 300 fencers, including Kharlan, signed an open letter this week imploring FIE to reverse its stance.

“Because of this ignorance on the part of the FIE and national fencing federations, it is once again the athletes who bear the responsibility and are being pushed into individual deliberations about boycott decisions,” they wrote. “Athletes are left alone in this chaos.” 

However, World Athletics, which governs track and field and other running and walking events, said last month it would exclude Russian and Belarusian athletes “for the foreseeable future”, effectively barring them from seeking to qualify for the Paris games.

At a board meeting last Tuesday, the IOC sought to resolve its dilemma, setting out guidelines for administrators of all Olympic sports on admitting athletes from Russia and Belarus to qualifying events. They include a bar on those nations’ athletes entering team sports and on members of the military or anyone who has publicly supported Moscow’s invasion.

Karyna Demidik of Belarus competes in the high jump at a 2021 international event
Karyna Demidik of Belarus competes in the high jump at a 2021 international event. World Athletics has now banned Russian and Belarusian athletes © Tim Clayton/Corbis/Getty Images

“We have been accused by the Russian side of being agents of the US, and we have been accused by the Ukrainian side of being promoters of war,” Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, said at a press conference after the meeting.

Qualifying standards are set by individual sports’ governing bodies, and athletes spend years training to meet them. Competitors in the men’s 100 metre sprint, for example, must run the distance in 10 seconds or faster in eligible races held between July 1 this year and June 30 next year.

However, the IOC has the final say on whether a qualifying athlete can enter the Olympics, and has not ruled on whether Russians or Belarusians will be permitted to compete in Paris.

Critics have accused the committee of waiting for developments in Ukraine before deciding. Bach refuted the claim, saying: “We are not kicking it down the road and we are not waiting for the war to end. We all want the war to end now.”

On the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion in February, 35 governments, including in the UK, US and France, signed an open letter to international sports bodies in which they said: “Given there has been no change in the situation regarding the Russian aggression in Ukraine . . . there is no practical reason to move away from the exclusion regime for Russian and Belarusian athletes.”

Within Russia, reactions to continued sanctions have been mixed. Stanislav Pozdnyakov, president of the Russian Olympic Committee, told state news agency Tass that banning Russian teams constituted “discrimination on the basis of a passport”. Tatiana Tarasova, a prominent figure skating coach, said: “Athletes must compete. If we don’t perform, we have a threat of losing Russian sports.”

In issuing its guidelines, the IOC argued that preventing individual Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing could violate their human rights. The committee cited a resolution from the Court of Justice of the European Union and an opinion given by UN special rapporteur Alexandra Xanthaki in support of its argument.

But in an address to the IOC at its meeting, Vadym Gutzeit, Ukrainian sports minister and president of the country’s national Olympic committee, called the rapporteur’s conclusions “not complete” and urged the global sporting body “to explore human rights issues more”.

In practice, individual sporting bodies and nations will be responsible for deciding whether to boycott international events. Ukraine’s government has said the country’s athletes will not compete alongside Russians and Belarusians, according to local media.

The IOC said in a statement Saturday that “if implemented, such a decision would only hurt the Ukrainian athlete community, and in no way impact the war that the world wants to stop”.

One of the sharpest conflicts is taking place on the fencing piste. The sport’s rules mandate that opponents shake one another’s hand after competition or face disqualification, Ukrainian fencing federation president Mykhailo Illiashev told Reuters on Thursday. But a potential handshake between a Russian and Ukrainian “is an impossible scenario”, he said.

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