Olympic sports bodies were meeting Wednesday amid ongoing uncertainty about if and how Russian athletes could return to their competitions ahead of the 2024 Paris Games.
The annual meeting of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) comes more than two months after the IOC detailed advice on how individual athletes from Russia and its military ally Belarus could be reintegrated as neutral athletes, despite those countries’ ongoing war on Ukraine.
Exactly how that neutrality is being defined is not very much clearer now as key qualification events start for the Olympics that open in July next year.
The International Olympic Committee in March advised that some Russians and Belarusians could return in individual events but not team sports, if they had not actively supported the war in Ukraine, and are not contracted to “military or national security agencies.”
The IOC also suggested ASOIF and the winter sports umbrella group, AIOWF, could oversee “creating a single independent panel” to run and “harmonize” the neutral status evaluations of hundreds of athletes, coaches and support staff.
That has not happened and there was no move Wednesday on the ASOIF agenda in the IOC’s home city of Lausanne toward taking on that complex responsibility.
Sports Governing Bodies Have Ultimate Control
IOC president Thomas Bach told leaders of governing bodies on the 32-sport Paris program, who have ultimate control over their own events, some had proven how Russian and Belarusians could continue to compete.
“You are doing so against the backdrop of the many traditional, I may say, naysayers who want to make people believe that it would never work,” Bach said. He did not speak with reporters when leaving after his speech.
Bach and the IOC led calls within days of the invasion of Ukraine in February of last year to banish Russia from international sport, including to protect the security of athletes.
As the war continued and the 2024 Olympics approached, the IOC and Bach started to suggest it was discrimination to exclude all Russians and Belarusians. If approved to compete, the IOC said Russian and Belarusians would not be allowed to use their flag, anthem or uniforms in national colors.
ASOIF officials previously cautioned “each sport has different realities,” including where Olympic qualification events are being hosted and the influence of Ukraine’s allies in sports and governments, especially in Europe.
In gymnastics, a top-tier Summer Games sport where Russians excel, a decision on reintegrating them was pushed back to at least July. World championships that are a key qualifier for Paris start Sept. 30 in Antwerp, Belgium.
Track and field took the strongest stance with World Athletics president Sebastian Coe citing deaths of hundreds of athletes in Ukraine that “hardened my resolve” to exclude all Russians.
The International Judo Federation let some Russians compete in Qatar at its worlds this month, an event which was boycotted by Ukraine. The IJF’s honorary president until last year was Vladimir Putin, who is an expert judoka.
The complicated situation in fencing — Bach’s own sport where the long-time governing body president, Kremlin-connected billionaire Alisher Usmanov, stepped aside while under international sanctions – saw several Olympic champions from Russia denied neutral status this month.
They included the daughter of Russian Olympic Committee president Stanislav Pozdnyakov, who then criticized the neutral eligibility process as a “farce” and a “thinly veiled suspension.” Pozdnyakov also warned of a Russian boycott of events.
Olympic sports officials are weighing their decisions while in Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, plus past and current Olympic medalists, continue to insist Russia must be excluded from Paris.
Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo also said there should be no Russian delegation at the Olympics if the war continues.
However, tennis fans in Paris turned on Ukrainian player Marta Kostyuk on Sunday at the French Open, booing her for refusing a post-match handshake with her Belarusian opponent Aryna Sabalenka. Roland Garros also will host the Olympic tennis tournaments next year.
Tennis and cycling have continued, since the war started, to let Russians and Belarusians compete as neutral individuals on their global tours.
Ultimately, the IOC can choose to bar Russia from its Olympics, and Bach said in March such a decision could be taken “at the appropriate time at its full discretion.”