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Olympics paves way for Russians to qualify for Paris 2024

International Olympic officials on Tuesday delayed a final decision on whether to allow athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete in the Paris Summer Games next year, pushing uncertainty over their eligibility at a crucial time. Olympic qualifiers and doing nothing to assuage the objections of dozens of governing bodies who want the countries to remain sporting pariahs while they wage war on Ukraine.

The International Olympic Committee has, however, created a pathway by which athletes from Russia and Belarus could try to qualify for next year’s Games. It is part of a series of recommendations issued to its member sports federations that will allow individuals from both countries to participate in international events as neutrals, potentially gaining places at the Games even if their countries remain banned.

The recommendations will do little to appease the dozens of National Olympic Committees, including those from the United States and other powerhouses in the Olympic movement, who have publicly opposed the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus, which provided a testing ground for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The lack of a final decision will fuel the prospect of an Olympic boycott by Ukraine, whose officials have threatened to stay out of the Paris Games if Russians are allowed to participate.

The IOC’s recommendations to federations to readmit individual athletes from Russia and Belarus were a U-turn from its position last year. In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Olympic officials joined most of the governing bodies of world sport in casting Russia and Belarus as sporting pariahs, with their athletes and teams excluded, to with few exceptions, international sporting events, large and small. (Russian teams would remain banned from team sports under the recommendations.)

Minutes after the IOC’s announcement, Nancy Faeser, interior minister of Germany, an Olympic power and home country of IOC President Thomas Bach, strongly criticized the decision to reopen the door to Russian athletes and Belarusians becauseA slap in the face for Ukrainian athletes.

But almost at the same time, Bach offered a clear sign of the organization’s willingness to welcome athletes from Russia and Belarus, even though the invasion has now entered its second year, and as United Nations investigators and the International Criminal Court have declared that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine.

Bach was ostensibly asked by a Ukrainian journalist during an online press conference about why the Olympic committee had changed its position. He cited two reasons: The first, he said, was the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in some international sporting events, including tennis tournaments, where they came up against Ukrainian opponents.

The second, he said, was the statement by two United Nations officials advising the committee that excluding athletes from the Games because of their nationality would be a “gross violation” of their human rights. One such official, Alexandra Xanthaki, the UN special rapporteur for cultural rights, courted controversy this week by saying that even military personnel actively involved in the invasion should be allowed to compete in the Olympics as neutrals provided they have not participated in war crimes.

The Olympic committee’s recommendations stopped short of approving this position, which was met with fury by a representative of Ukrainian athletes when Xanthaki made his suggestion during a call with Olympic representatives and in social media posts. Instead, the organization said active military personnel should continue to be banned from international sports, a ban it also recommended for anyone who has actively promoted Russia’s cause. He also endorsed maintaining the ban on Russian and Belarusian symbols, including uniforms, flags and anthems.

Dozens of Russian athletes are part of the country’s army or have been trained by it. Others have been conscripted to his cause since the invasion began. And according to a review by the Associated Press, the country’s Olympic success is inextricably linked to its army: of the 71 medals won by Russian athletes at the last Summer Olympics, in Tokyo in 2021, 45 were collected by athletes affiliated with the Army’s Central Sports Club.

Still, Bach made a point of reading part of the UN rapporteur’s advice calling for the inclusion of athletes in the Olympics from all countries, regardless of nationality. “This clear statement cannot be overlooked by the Olympic movement,” he said.

Under Bach’s tenure, the IOC was criticized for its attitude towards Russia even before the war, with scrutiny over its decision to allow neutrals to participate in the Olympics after the discovery of a huge Russian doping scheme sanctioned by the state, which has corrupted several international events. , then a second attempt by the country to prevent investigators from finding out how many Russian athletes had participated in the program.

After reminding Bach on Tuesday that the first person to call to congratulate him after his election as IOC head in 2013 was Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, he said Putin was quickly stripped of the Order. Olympic Games after Russia launched its invasion. “We have been accused by the Russian side of being agents of Ukraine and the Ukrainian side of promoters of war,” he said.

The fate of Russian and Belarusian athletes seeking to compete in international events – or which competitions would allow them to return – remained unclear. Athletics’ governing body, for example, last week extended an indefinite ban on all Russian and Belarusian athletes “for the foreseeable future due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”.

A spokesman for governing body World Athletics said on Tuesday the federation was working to ensure other organizations followed its lead, particularly the Olympic Council of Asia. This organization, at the request of the IOC, has laid the groundwork for including athletes from Belarus and Russia in the competitions of the Asian Games later this year. The idea was that their performances in this event serve as qualifying opportunities for the Paris Olympics.

The World Athletics spokesperson, however, said the organization was now trying to persuade Asian Games organizers to ban athletes from Russia and Belarus and at the same time clarify that only Asian athletes’ results would be taken into account. for qualification for the Olympics. Russia and Belarus are part of European sports confederations, where an overwhelming number of countries remain opposed to their participation.

Efforts by the IOC to ease bans on competitors from Russia and Belarus have also met with significant resistance elsewhere. In February, a group of sports ministers and government officials from more than 30 countries, including representatives from some of the most important countries in the Olympic movement, urged the IOC to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from participating in international sports. as long as their countries were engaged in the war in Ukraine.

The group of countries, which included the United States, Britain, Germany and dozens of others, said the IOC’s current policy of allowing athletes from both countries was effectively worthless because “it there are serious concerns about its feasibility for Russian and Belarusian athletes.” to compete on a neutral basis as they are directly funded and supported by their states.

Matt Futterman contributed report.

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