The International Olympic Committee will allow neutral athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete in Paris, despite strong opposition. Senior Writer Mike Osborne explains why.
Russia and Belarus are not welcome at the Paris 2024 Olympics because of the war in Ukraine, although some individual athletes from those countries will be allowed to compete under a neutral flag.
But these “neutral” athletes may face a hostile reception at next year’s Games, based on crowd reaction at recent major events including Wimbledon.
Former world no.1 and two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka from Belarus was booed by the Wimbledon crowd after losing to Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, who refuses to shake hands with Russians and Belarusians because of the war in her hoemland.
“But what can I say about the crowd? There is nothing to say,” Azarenka said about being booed. “If people are going to be focusing only on handshakes or … (crowd) booing in the end, that’s a shame.”
High-profile Russians likely to join Azarenka in Paris as “neutral athletes” are fellow tennis player Daniil Medvedev, currently ranked No.3 in the world, and 2019 pole vault world champion Anzhelika Sidorova.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) decision to ban Russian and Belarusian teams but let some individuals “evaluated as neutral” compete in qualifying events for Paris 2024 has met wide official opposition.
Russia has labelled the IOC “agents of the United States of America” and wants the Olympic movement to ignore the war, while Ukraine wants the IOC to bar anyone with a Russian and Belarusian passport.
Australia, the US, the UK and more than 30 other countries said in a joint statement earlier this year they “do not agree” that Russian or Belarusian athletes should participate in the 2024 Paris Olympics under any flag.
Four countries – Latvia, Lithuania and Poland which border Russia, plus Denmark – said they would boycott Paris if these athletes are allowed to compete.
It leaves the IOC wedged by its mission of friendship and respect and the Olympic Charter against any form of discrimination. While it is against the war in Ukraine, the IOC does not want to discriminate against athletes based on their passports.
It also points out there has been no criticism about participation of athletes whose countries are involved in the other 70 wars or armed conflicts raging around the world.
The IOC is also mindful that sports including tennis and cycling have made similar decisions regarding Russian and Belarusian athletes competing as individuals.
It says the decision ultimately comes down to ensuring the “security and integrity” of the Games.
The IOC says it reserves the right to make decisions about its own event – which it is doing a year out from the 2024 Games by formally inviting 203 eligible countries to Paris.
But it says this will exclude the National Olympic Committees of Russia and Belarus, plus the NOC of Guatemala, which is suspended due to alleged government interference.
Interestingly the president of the Belarus NOC is Viktor Lukashenko, son of President Alexander Lukashenko who has supported Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
However, the IOC does not make it clear whether Russia and Belarus might be invited later, if the Ukraine war ends before the 2024 Games start on July 26.
Paris will be the fifth consecutive Games where Russia has faced sanctions, mostly due to its state-sponsored doping at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Those sanctions were set to expire in December 2022, but the World Anti-Doping Agency says Russia remains noncompliant.
Russia has been stripped of six Olympic medals since Sochi.
Michael Osborne has been a journalist for more than four decades including 35 years with the national news agency Australian Associated Press, rising from junior reporter to Editor.
He was AAP Editor for 11 years and served four years as Head of Sport and Racing. He was also posted to London and Beijing as AAP’s Bureau Chief and Foreign Correspondent.