The IOC must protect Russian and all athletes against geopolitics

THE International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Ukrainian government are at each other’s throats over the inclusion of Russian and Belarussian athletes at the Paris 2024 Olympics in 18 months.


The IOC has stated its willingness to let athletes from the two countries heavily involved in the Ukraine war participate “under a neutral flag” at the games in France.

In the aftermath of the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the IOC recommended that Russian and Belarussian athletes should be “indefinitely suspended” in international competitions.

Russia was swiftly barred from participating in the UEFA games and the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. The move was condemned in many quarters, particularly across the non-aligned countries that maintain neutrality in global conflict.

The IOC mission states, in part: “To take action to strengthen the unity of the Olympic Movement, to protect its independence, to maintain and promote its political neutrality and to preserve the autonomy of sport.”

It further states: “To act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement” and “to oppose any political or commercial abuse of sport and athletes”.

Earlier last month, the IOC appeared to make a U-turn on its initial declaration of an indefinite ban for Russian and Belarussian athletes, stating – with a degree of moral conviction – that no athlete should “be prevented from competing just because of their passport”. Around the world, Olympic committees have taken diverse stances on the issue, leaving each to approach the issue in line with the geopolitical interest of their national governments.

For example, the Olympic Council of Asia supports the participation of the Russian and Belarussian athletes in the games within their jurisdiction and elsewhere. On the other hand, the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee holds the view that the Russian and Belarussian athletes should only compete in the games – including in Paris 2024 – on condition that they do so not under their nation’s flags or colours.

In other words, they must compete as neutrals, as athletes of no fixed abode. Recently, the IOC stated that it welcomed the view of the Olympic Council of Asia to allow the Russian and Belarussian athletes a chance to compete within their jurisdiction. That could potentially include Olympic qualification in various sporting codes, given that Russian and Belarussian athletes are unable to compete in Europe due to a barrage of restrictions and travel ban that are part of the US-led NATO’s and EU’s comprehensive sanctions against Russia and Belarus respectively.

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This conundrum has revealed a fractious approach to the fate of the Russian and Belarussian athletes caught up as pawns in geopolitics. Olympic committees in Europe, noticeably from Greece, Italy, the UK, France and Germany, are evidently torn to the extent that they have been thus far unable to provide a firm position on their official stance. This can be interpreted as a reflection of serious divisions within the committees.

As for those Committees that prefer the participation of Russian and Belarussian athletes to be without their nation’s flags or colours, their rational appear to be geared toward the punishment of the State, instead of the individual athletes.

But Podolyak and the Zelensky administration are vehemently opposed to the presence of the Russian and Belarussian athletes in France, or anywhere. Podolyak argues that their presence at next year’s games in France would give Russia “a platform to promote genocide”.

In a rare broadside against the IOC, Podolyak accused the world athletics body of being a “promoter of war, murder and destruction” for their amenable stance to allow for the participation of the Russian and Belarussian athletes as “neutrals”.

The IOC, clearly angered by the Ukrainian accusation, hit back, accusing Kyiv of “defamatory statements”. In a media release, the world athletics body said: “The IOC rejects in the strongest possible terms this and other defamatory statements. They cannot serve as a basis for any constructive discussion.”

Methinks at the core of this to-and-fro is one and only one issue: the plight of athletes.

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I am motivated to argue in their favour from my journalistic principle of always being on the side of the weak against the powerful. Russian, Belarussian and all athletes around the world are no politician. This is the first and most important departure point that must be kept in mind by politicians and sport administrators. Athletes dedicate their lives to training so that they could become the best, or among the very best, at what they do. Their profession is the source of their livelihood. It is where they eke out a living in the most honest and fair manner.

The Russian and Belarussian athletes have so far been thoroughly punished for the sins not of their own. Their only crime, under the circumstances, is their nationalities. As the IOC correctly points out: “No athlete should be prevented from competing just because of their passport.”

If Ukraine expects the IOC to ignore the core of their finding preamble, mission and vision – and punish innocent athletes because of their nationalities – the move would jeopardise the welfare of innocent men and women who have chosen a career in athletics due to their love, passion, dedication and commitment to the course.

The international community is riddled with conflicts. Israel’s conversion of Palestine into the world’s biggest prison where men, women and children are born and bred with curtailed or no rights is one example that comes to mind easily. The US foreign policy has over the years resulted in Washington’s invasion of perceived enemy territories, such as Iraq in 2003. The assassination of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi by the Western mob of countries and the over 60-years blockade of Cuba by the US are further examples. The UK has never paid any reparations for its role in colonialism in Africa, neither has France, Spain, Germany or Portugal. The extent of destruction that the Europeans have caused in Africa still reverberates to this day. Asia and the Middle East are no exception to the tyranny of imperialism, and so is Latin America.

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If the IOC were to apply the Ukraine-proposed formula to punish Russian and Belarussian athletes and extend the same formula throughout the world, the majority of innocent athletes would be out of jobs and worse for wear.

The pursuit of justice is a fundamental human right. The protection of the weak against the powerful should be an ethos that propels the world’s do-gooders to keep unscrupulous politicians and sly sports administrators at bay.

FIFA has been particularly a huge disappointment in its horrible punishment of Russian athletes for nothing that they had done, other than the perceived wrongs of their public office bearers. For many years FIFA has insisted that governments are not allowed to interfere in the running of spots. And if they do, FIFA swiftly suspend the membership of the said national soccer body. Now, for FIFA president Gianni Infantino & Co to bar the qualified Russian soccer teams from competing in the Qatar World Cup really leaves too much to be desired. Sadly, FIFA has set for itself a horrible precedent. Its leadership has fallen for the temptation to dabble in geopolitics, albeit surreptitiously. This is a recipe that breaks global bodies apart, no matter how the will of the wealthy affiliates overwhelms the wishes of the poorer counterparts. This is no equality. It is a farce, a charade. And the IOC better remains wiser and avoids such a terrible blunder as FIFA’s. Otherwise, soon there would be splinter organisations across all the continents. The US-led NATO’s proxy war against Russia should not be extended to hundreds of innocent athletes who have nothing to do with the war. Above all, the West must not turn Russian and Belarussian athletes into pawns of something they never started. It is a travesty, a travesty of natural justice.

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