The IOC made it clear on Wednesday that it wants Russians to compete in the 2024 Paris Olympics as neutral athletes, despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call to exclude them completely.
Citing a “unifying mission” in wartime, the International Olympic Committee said no athlete should be discriminated against based solely on the passport they held.
“A path for athlete participation in competitions under strict conditions should therefore be further explored,” the IOC said in a statement released after a board meeting. IOC President Thomas Bach did not hold his usual press conference after the meeting.
Russia was not directly condemned in the statement, although athletes who have “actively supported the war in Ukraine” will be barred from the Paris Olympics that start in 18 months, the IOC said.
The IOC cited the example of Yugoslavs participating in the 1992 Barcelona Games – as “independent athletes” while the country was under United Nations sanctions during a civil war.
The willingness of Olympic leaders to involve Russia and its military ally Belarus is likely to be met with dismay and anger in Kiev.
Zelensky spoke on the matter on Tuesday after speaking with French President Emmanuel Macron, who was campaigning for the Paris Olympics when it was a candidate in 2017.
“I especially emphasized that athletes from Russia should have no place in the Paris Olympics,” Zelensky wrote on his Telegram account of his talks with Macron.
Russian Olympic Committee president Stanislav Pozdnyakov said in a statement later Wednesday that “the voice of common sense has been heard.”
“The priority for us remains the same: to secure the rights and interests of our athletes,” said Pozdnyakov.
The IOC board met last week to formalize a position after rounds of conference calls with global groups of Olympic officials, sports governing bodies, IOC members and athlete representatives.
Despite some backlash to those calls, including from the Ukrainian Olympic body, the IOC claimed on Wednesday that the stated goals were supported by a “vast majority” of those who took part.
Russians would be classed as “neutral athletes” and “in no way represent their state or any other organization in their country,” the IOC said. Russian athletes have not competed in Olympics under their country’s name since the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016 due to the fallout from a long-running doping scandal.
While Russian athletes have been banned from most international sports, in the past 11 months tennis has been the most famous example of Russians continuing to compete without symbols of national identity, such as flags and national anthems.
However, tensions flared at the Australian Open with provocative flags, chants and t-shirts in support of players from Russia advancing to the semifinals this week. The IOC noted on Wednesday that its advice was to avoid such displays at “the entire venue”.
One point that has been raised as a sensitive issue in Ukraine is that some Russian athletes are funded and supported by the military and have been given ranks.
The Olympic statement suggested that responsibility would lie with individual sports governing bodies to ensure that any Russian athlete supporting the war is removed from competition, suspended and reported to the IOC for further action.
One possible route for Russians trying to qualify for Paris is to compete in Asia rather than Europe, where they will face boycotts and hostility from other athletes. The IOC said it “welcomed and appreciated the offer from the Olympic Council of Asia”, although it has not yet committed to the plan.
The Olympic body also called on sports organizations to strengthen “full and unwavering commitment to solidarity with the Ukrainian athletes” in preparation for the Paris Games.