Sport is meant to unite people instead of dividing them. This is the noble idea behind the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) proposal to allow athletes from Russia and Belarus to return to international competition under a neutral flag. It is no secret that this is primarily about the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, for which qualifying events begin in the next few months.
Ukraine’s reaction to this initiative was as harsh as it was predictable. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that only after Russia stops prosecuting its war and committing acts of terrorism could the idea be discussed. Former Olympic champion Vladimir Klitschko called for the ban to be upheld.
Nonetheless, IOC President Thomas Bach has said he “senses” that there is “a global, huge majority” in favor of the idea. And indeed, there are some voices from the West that welcome this openness. Andreas Michelmann, the president of the German Handball Association (DHB) described the initiative as “understandable.”As early as the start of December, a spokeswoman for the US National Olympic Committee expressed her cautious approval.
Seriously? Ukrainian athletes are to be asked to compete against athletes from Russia directly under the Olympic rings – in “peaceful competition,” as the IOC puts it? All while bombs continue to rain down on friends and family back home? This is what it all comes down to at the end of the day, even if the athletes from Belarus and Russia would have to continue competing under a neutral flag. A cursory look back at the Beijing Winter Games shows that this was more window dressing than anything else. Russian national colors were on display for all to see at the closing ceremony.
Immediately after the Games, several Russian Olympic athletes allowed themselves to be used for President Putin’s war propaganda. Sport and the state have always been more closely linked there than elsewhere. This has been particularly evident since the scandal surrounding Moscow’s state doping program. That also showed how seriously Russia takes its Olympic values. The extensive exclusion of its athletes from international competitions is therefore harsh but correct.
If we look at the individual, the picture becomes more differentiated. Like the IOC, DHB boss Michelmann argues that one cannot “hold athletes responsible for the politics of their country.” In theory, this is correct, but in practice it turns out to be an insoluble problem.
When it came to allowing Russian athletes to return to competition after the doping affair, the IOC was at least able to point to hard facts such as verifiable tests and laboratory results. This isn’t possible when it comes to the war on Ukraine.
After all, some Russian athletes, such as Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin, openly support Putin, even though they have lived abroad for years. At the same time, there are also those who cautiously speak out against the war – such as tennis star Alexander Rublev. The existing collective punishment affects everyone and is therefore tricky. At the end of the day, though, it is right – because regardless of the political stance of the individual, the Kremlin would use any sporting successes for propaganda purposes and thus strengthen its position in the war.
To be clear, sport always provides a stage. Just a few days ago, a Ukrainian and a “neutral” athlete from Russia faced each other at the Australian Open. Spectators in the stands cheered with Russian flags and a portrait of Putin – garnering worldwide attention. Afterwards, the organizers felt compelled to ban the Russian flag – thus denying Putin supporters this public platform as quickly as possible.
IOC President Bach has also played the human rights card, saying special rapporteurs at the UN Human Rights Council have expressed concerns. Excluding an athlete “because of a passport or place of birth” amounts to a violation of the ban on discrimination, so the argument goes. But can there really be there any comparison between the pain caused by discriminating against a Russian athlete and that caused by Russian military attacks on Ukrainian civilians?
There is simply no comparison in terms of the suffering caused. Banning an individual because of his origin is unfair, no question. And this should end as soon as possible. But now is definitely not the time.
This article was adapted from German.