IOC confirms Russian athletes can compete at Paris Olympics with approved neutral status
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he delivers a speech during a ceremony to present Gold Star medals to Heroes of Russia on the eve of Heroes of the Fatherland Day at the St. George Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Dec. 8, 2023. (Sergei Guneyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Graham Dunbar, The Associated Press
Published Friday, December 8, 2023 3:14PM EST
GENEVA (AP) - Some Russian athletes will be allowed to compete at the 2024 Paris Olympics, the IOC said Friday, in a decision that removed the option of a blanket ban due to the invasion of Ukraine.
The International Olympic Committee decision confirmed moves it started one year ago to reintegrate Russia and its military ally Belarus into global sports, and nine months after it urged sports governing bodies to look at ways to let individual athletes compete.
Though the IOC's official position was expected, the timing surprised some Olympic watchers after reports last week in Paris suggested the long-promised decision would come in March.
It is still up to each sport's governing body, which run their own Olympic competitions, to assess and enforce neutral status for individual athletes who have not actively supported the war and are not contracted to military or state security agencies.
The IOC said on Friday eight Russians and three from Belarus are among 4,600 athletes worldwide who have so far qualified for the Summer Games. More than 60 Ukrainian athletes have qualified so far and the IOC estimated the country would ultimately send about 150.
Russia sent 335 athletes to the Tokyo Olympics held in 2021 - winning 20 golds among 71 total medals - but only dozens are likely to compete in Paris as individuals. Russia remains banned from team sports.
“Only a very limited number of athletes will qualify through the existing qualification systems of the (governing bodies),” the IOC said in a statement
Those who are given neutral status must compete without their national identity of flag, anthem or colors. Light blue uniforms have been mandated by the International Gymnastics Federation.
Russian government and sports officials have often insisted that any restrictions on their athletes are politicized and unacceptable.
Athletes and officials from Ukraine, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have repeatedly urged the IOC to expel Russia and Belarus entirely from the Olympics because of the war Russia started. Zelenskyy said in January it was “obvious that any neutral flag of Russian athletes is stained with blood.”
They have said any Olympic medal wins for Russians will be used as propaganda by the state. Russian medal winners are often linked to military sports clubs such as the CSKA which is tied to the army.
European allies of Ukraine have tried to exert pressure on Olympic and sports officials, and Sweden's sports minister said the IOC decision was “upsetting and very regrettable.”
“Neutral flag is an illusion and this contributes to normalizing the Russian war of aggression!” sports minister Jakob Forssmed wrote on social media.
The toughest stance on Russian athletes has been taken by World Athletics, which has excluded them from international competition since the invasion started in February 2022.
The IOC and its President Thomas Bach also urged excluding Russia from sports when the war started days after the closing ceremony of the Beijing Winter Games, then eased their position through last year as qualifying events for Paris approached.
Paris is the fifth straight Olympics where Russia and its athletes have faced calls to be banned since the steroid-tainted 2014 Sochi Winter Games that was Bach's first as IOC president. In Paris, Russian athletes will compete as Individual Neutral Athletes - using the French acronym AIN - at the fourth straight games where the simple team name “Russia” was not allowed.
Bach has repeatedly cited the war in Ukraine as being among dozens of ongoing conflicts, and that athletes worldwide and especially from Africa do not want fellow competitors to be punished by the actions of their government.
Last year, Bach pointed to the gravity of Russia breaching the United Nations-backed Olympic Truce that was in place for the Winter Games and Paralympics in China.
A fresh Olympic Truce for Paris was approved this month at the UN in New York, though with only 118 votes in favor from the 193 member states. Russia and Syria abstained.
Russian athletes who compete in Paris will be invited directly by the IOC and their sport's governing body, and will not be affected by a current suspension of their national Olympic committee.
That was a largely cosmetic sanction imposed because the ROC incorporated as members regional sports councils from the occupied east of Ukraine. No action was taken in 2016 when Russian Olympic officials made a similar move after the illegal annexation of Crimea.
The IOC has allocated $7.5 million for sport in Ukraine, and said on Friday it “reaffirmed again the steadfast commitment of the entire Olympic movement to help Ukrainian athletes in every way possible.”