GENEVA — Some Russian athletes can soon return to international sports, although their status for next year’s Paris Olympics is still up in the air.
The International Olympic Committee recommended Tuesday that individual athletes from Russia and Belarus should be allowed to return to competition under a neutral status as long as they have no military links. But the IOC, facing increased pressure to ban Russia and Belarus from the Paris Olympics because of the war in Ukraine, held off on deciding whether they can compete at next year’s Summer Games.
That decision will be taken “at the appropriate time,” IOC President Thomas Bach said. When it comes to other events, including Olympic qualifiers, it will be up to each individual sport’s governing body to make the final decision on whether Russian and Belarusian athletes can take part.
While the IOC said Russia and Belarus should remain barred from team sports such as soccer and basketball, it still defied repeated calls by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to exclude all Russian athletes while his country is being occupied and attacked. But athletes from Russia and its military ally Belarus who have actively supported the war in Ukraine, or are “contracted to the military or national security agencies”, should not be cleared to compete as neutral individuals, Bach said.
The Russian Defense Ministry has said more than 20 of the country’s medalists at the Tokyo Olympics staged in 2021 held military ranks. Of the 71 medals won in Japan, 45 were by athletes affiliated with the Central Sports Club of the Army.
In team sports, Russia and Belarus “cannot be considered” for a return, Bach said at a news conference after what he said was a unanimous agreement among the 15-member executive board.
Team events in other sports, such as relays or mixed doubles or team all-around in gymnastics, should also be off limits, the IOC said in a document explaining its guidance.
“There is definitely discrimination in this,” veteran Russian gymnastics coach Valentina Rodionenko said in comments reported by RIA Novosti, adding that with “conditions like these, they understand very well that Russia itself will not agree to them.”
In the guidance document, the IOC said it would like Russians and Belarusians to be known as Individual Neutral Athletes with the French acronym AIN.
They should wear uniforms that are either entirely white or a single color, and can’t have a team logo. Athletes should be barred from displaying their national flags on social media or making statements “that may be prejudicial to the interests of the competition, its integrity or the participant’s neutrality,” the five-page document stated.
The IOC’s recommendations “do not concern” the Paris Games that opens in 16 months.
“The IOC will take this decision at the appropriate time at its full discretion,” said Bach, adding that “we are not kicking it down the road” when asked if the IOC was effectively buying time for the war to end.
The individual Olympic sports must now decide the entry and eligibility conditions for their events, which include ongoing qualifiers for the Paris Olympics and beyond to the 2026 Milan-Cortina d’Ampezzo Winter Games.
Some Olympic sports, such as track and field and gymnastics, have established independent integrity units that earned wide respect. The position of some sports bodies which have strong sporting, commercial and political ties to Russia is less clear.
The suggested conditions are stricter than when Russia was under sanctions for doping cases at each Winter and Summer Games since 2018. In those events, uniforms in national colors could be worn and music by Tchaikovsky was played when Russian athletes won gold medals.
The IOC also said that event organizers should not fly Russian or Belarusian flags and should try to prevent spectators bringing national flags into venues. Four fans with Russian flags, including one with an image of President Vladimir Putin, were evicted after they flew them at the Australian Open tennis event in January.
The IOC advice presented Tuesday marks a profound shift in sport’s position on Russia and Belarus following a near-total exclusion by most governing bodies.
Within days of the war starting in February last year, the IOC urged sports bodies to isolate Russia and Belarus. It cited an “extremely grave violation” of the Olympic Truce in place for the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, plus the integrity and security of sports events, including the unfairness that Russians could train in peace while Ukrainians athletes’ lives were disrupted.
In January, the IOC formally announced it would seek a “pathway for athletes’ participation in competition under strict conditions”, with a view to letting Russians and Belarusians try to qualify for the Paris Olympics.
Bach has repeatedly pointed to advice from independent U.N.-recognized human rights experts that excluding athletes based only on their passports would be discrimination.
On Tuesday, Bach said one factor that changed IOC thinking is some sports having already reintegrated neutral Russians and Belarusians, such as tennis and cycling. Soccer’s exclusion of Russian teams by FIFA and UEFA was upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne.
Zelenskyy has consistently called for all Russian athletes and teams to be excluded. His call is backed by some governments and Olympic bodies in Europe and elsewhere.
“A slap in the face of Ukrainian athletes,” the sports minister of Bach’s native Germany, Nancy Faeser, said Tuesday in reaction to the IOC announcement. “Those who let the warmonger Russia use international competitions for its propaganda are damaging the Olympic idea of peace and international understanding.”
Russian Olympic Committee president Stanislav Pazdnyakov told the Tass agency the guidelines would block athletes from competing: “The decision is a farce. The basic principles of the Olympic Charter are being breached.”
Ukrainian athletes, including past and current Olympic medalists, have also publicly disagreed with the IOC’s stated “unifying mission” to bring the world together peacefully in sport.
The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, said there should be no Russian delegation at her city’s Olympics if the war in Ukraine continues.
Bach was once close to Putin ahead of the steroid-tainted 2014 Sochi Winter Games in the first year of his IOC leadership and reminded reporters Tuesday that last year he withdrew an Olympic honor from the Russian president.
Asked if he had communicated recently with Putin, Bach replied: “A clear ‘no.’”