GENEVA: The key factor in weighing the IOC’s ultimate decision on letting Russians participate at the 2024 Paris Games is how well athletes behave in international competitions, the Olympic body’s president Thomas Bach said Tuesday.
“It’s too soon to draw final conclusions,” Bach said, adding “we have the responsibility not to punish athletes for the acts of their government.”
The International Olympic Committee has pushed sports governing bodies this year to approve some athletes from Russia and its military ally Belarus competing as neutrals for international competitions including Paris qualifying events.
Bach has previously said the IOC can take its own final decision “at the appropriate time, at its full discretion” which could include barring Russians and Belarusians as their countries’ war on Ukraine continues.
On Tuesday, Bach clarified the IOC’s interest is mainly in ensuring athletes behave well in competitions, not how the war progresses.
“Right now it is more to monitor the situation on the field of play, whether the rules are respected, the conditions are respected, by everybody,” Bach told reporters in an online briefing ahead of next week’s one-year countdown to the Paris opening ceremony.
Soccer and track and field have taken the toughest positions against Russia, excluding teams and athletes within days of the invasion of Ukraine starting in February 2022. Russia was removed from trying to qualify for the men’s and women’s World Cup in soccer.
The IOC shared that view when war started days after the closing ceremony of the Beijing Winter Games, citing Russia’s breach of the traditional Olympic Truce pledge agreed at the United Nations and security concerns for athletes.
Tennis and cycling continued to let Russians and Belarusians compete as neutrals — but not in team events — without their national identity, and the IOC and Bach have pointed to their success.
Ukrainian tennis players, including Wimbledon semifinalist Elina Svitolina, have refused to shake hands with opponents from Russia and Belarus leading to crowds at Roland Garros and Wimbledon booing what they saw — not seemingly always accurately –- as a breach of protocol.
“We can see that this is working pretty well,” Bach said Tuesday. “They are respectful and they make it clear they went to compete against the best athletes of the world.”
Governing bodies of individual Olympic sports have the final say which athletes compete and their umbrella group, known as ASOIF, said in May that finding a common position has been difficult in trying to define neutrality and what exactly is a team sport.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport was involved in helping to define neutrality, which the IOC has advised should include no active support for the war and no contacts since February 2022 with military or state security agencies.
In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky and past Olympic champions have urged the IOC to exclude Russia entirely. Zelensky invited Bach in January to visit the destroyed city Bakhmut “to see with his own eyes that neutrality does not exist.”
Another Olympic Truce text — the ancient tradition in Greece that paused wars and ensured safe passage to the games — is being prepared ahead of Paris. It should apply for several days ahead of the July 26-Aug. 11 Summer Games and for a few days beyond the Aug. 28-Sept. 8 Paralympic Games.
Bach said the host French government “is initiating this Truce resolution. We are waiting for this to happen and then are looking forward to having a result on which again all member states of the United Nations can agree.”
Russia has also faced investigations and calls to be excluded from each of the past four Olympics since 2016 because of scandals tied to a state-backed doping program that tainted the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Russia eventually sent teams to each Olympics though under a neutral identity starting in 2018.