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How the Russia question is dividing world sport

  • April 18, 2023

For organizers of the multi-sport European Games in Krakow, Poland, the idea of Russian and Belarusian athletes taking part is unimaginable in the current circumstances.

“We would sooner resign from organizing competitions in a given discipline than allow Russians and Belarusians to stand on the starting line,” Games spokesperson Dawid Glen told DW.

For some sports, however, the participation of athletes from Russia and its major ally Belarus is not only necessary to avoid what they see as discrimination, it is actively desired.

“The athlete-first approach should prevail and there should be no place for politics in our sport,” said the International Boxing Association (IBA) in response to the banning of Russians and Belarusians from the Games.

The contrasting opinions underline the different approaches taken by sports and competitions following the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) recommendation last month that Russian and Belarusian athletes should be allowed to return as neutrals, despite Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.

DW takes a look at what is at stake and how the split is impacting qualification for next year’s Paris Olympics.

Why are the European Games significant?

The European Games, held for the first time in Baku in 2015 and then in Minsk four years later, are essentially a mini European version of the Olympics, overseen by the Rome-based European Olympic Committees (EOC), the body responsible for Olympic sport in Europe. This year’s Games take place from June 21 to July 2.

Places at Paris 2024 are up for grabs in 19 of the 29 sports on the program. But because of the Russia question, the Games are underlining the challenges event organizers, sports bodies and athletes will face in the run-up to the Olympics.

The EOC says the decision to exclude Russians and Belarusians was made at the end of last year, in part because many qualifying spots for the Games had already been filled.

However, Poland’s role as host country shouldn’t be ignored. Back in February, Ukraine’s neighbor to the west was the first to mention a possible boycott of the Paris Olympics, as it aimed to build a coalition of countries to support plans to block Russians and Belarusians from international competition.

At a flame lighting ceremony in Rome earlier this month, Polish President Andrzej Duda criticized the IOC’s stance, calling Russia an “invader state.”

“As the host of the European Games, I will be able to look in the eye of [Ukrainian] President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and tell him: ‘Volodymyr, these Games are going to be the Games of peace and the Games of calm with no pretenses, with no imitation that everything is alright,'” Duda said.

Poster advocating for the boycott of Russian sport
Protests against the Olympics allowing Russian athletes to compete have been held across EuropeImage: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/picture alliance

What did the IOC recommend in March?

Last month, the IOC detailed a “pathway” for Russian and Belarusian athletes to be able to qualify for the Paris Olympics, expanding on recommendations it had initially laid out in January.

According to the latest recommendations, Russians and Belarusians would return to competition as so-called Individual Neutral Athletes, without their national flag, anthem or other symbols. “Sanctions cannot solely be based on a person holding a passport from a particular nation,” the IOC said, citing athletes’ human rights.

Teams from Russia and Belarus would remain banned, as would any individual who actively supports the war (for example, by displaying the letter “Z,” a Russian military symbol) or who is contracted to the military.

Ultimately, though, the decision and implementation rests with each sport’s international federation, with the IOC suggesting that the federations should band together and create a “single independent panel” to assess which athletes meet the criteria or not. It is unclear how this would work in practice, with IOC critics unimpressed.

“The farcical facade of neutrality and discriminatory exclusion that the IOC is using to justify and bolster its decision are misleading and lack sufficient evidence,” Rob Koehler, head of the athlete-led movement Global Athlete, told DW.

How can Russians and Belarusians qualify for Paris?

The qualification process for the Paris Olympics varies depending on the sport. Some places are based on performance at a specific event; others are based on ranking over time or meeting a certain qualifying standard.

In sports that have maintained their ban, the door to Paris appears shut. Take athletics as an example. Even though many places are allocated at national Olympic trials in individual countries (Russians can obviously compete in Russia), governing body World Athletics has the final say on the entry list.

“For clarity, World Athletics (and all international sports federations) have primacy in athlete eligibility for the Olympic Games,” World Athletics told DW in a statement. “The National Olympic Committees select their national teams from athletes who the IFs [international federations] have deemed qualified and eligible. These are two different criteria.”

Fencing’s decision to go the other way has caused its own problems. Many World Cup events in Europe, which also serve as Olympic qualifiers, were canceled after it became clear that Russians and Belarusians wouldn’t be allowed to enter the hosting countries. 

For some sports, Asia has been mooted as a possible qualifying destination for Russian and Belarusian athletes who are shut out of European events. September’s Asian Games, Asia’s equivalent of the European Games, have been put forward as one such option.

Meanwhile, taekwondo, another sport to have greenlighted the return of Russians and Belarusians, will hold its world championships at the end of May in Azerbaijan, a Russia-friendly country. The championships are part of the qualification criteria for the Olympics.

Olympic mascot
The Paris 2024 Olympic Games will take place from July 26 to August 11Image: Lafargue Raphael/ABACA/picture alliance

What do governments have to say?

Last week, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, whose portfolio includes sport, told German newspaper publishing group Funke Media that Russian athletes could be denied entry into Germany.

“Countries where major sporting events take place are not powerless,” she said. “They can control via the issuing of visas whether Russians can actually participate.”

Faeser previously described the IOC’s recommendation to readmit Russians and Belarusians as “a slap in the face of Ukrainian athletes.” Such interventions were branded “deplorable” by IOC President Thomas Bach.

Indeed, Bach’s organization doesn’t take too kindly to politicians mixing in sport. In an extensive QA document on the Olympics website, it stressed that governments shouldn’t be deciding which athletes can or cannot compete, writing: “This would be the end of international sport as we know it.”

But as far as Global Athlete head Koehler is concerned, the IOC needs to listen more to those it claims to represent.

“Thousands of athletes have called for the  IOC to uphold the ban on Russia and Belarus with complete suspension from international sport […] until Russia withdraws fully from Ukraine,” he said.

Edited by: James Thorogood

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