The Sports Examiner: Britain’s Frazer shares U.K. view of “neutrality”

British Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Lucy Frazer (Photo: PACE video feed screen shot)

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The Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) held a high-profile, two-hour hearing in Strasbourg (FRA) on Tuesday on the topic of “Excluding the athletes and officials of the Russian Federation and Belarus from participating in the international Olympic Movement.”

Remarks were made on tape, by video and in person, with British Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Lucy Frazer directly addressing not only the issue, but the International Olympic Committee’s recommendations of 28 March to allow re-entry of individual Russian and Belarusian athletes as neutrals. In pertinent part:

● “Any change in our position on the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes representing their states in international sport would be incompatible with that commitment and incompatible with our values as a country. …

“Russia has shown nothing but contempt for the values of the Olympics Movement and its flouting of the rules has extended beyond the current-front conflict as we saw with its involvement in doping programs.”

● “Our common goal is for sporting bodies to minimize the ability of Russia and Belarus to use sport for political gain. We recognize and want to maintain the autonomy of sport and we support those national and international sports bodies who’ve shown moral clarity and exceptional leadership in this area.”

● “This is not about punishing individual Russian or Belarusian athletes. These individuals have dedicated their lives to sport. What we stand against is athletes competing to represent the state of Russia and Belarus. There is a fundamental difference.”

● “The UK government has, from March 2022, been clear in our guidance to our own domestic sports bodies, that individual Russian and Belarusian athletes can compete as neutrals on UK soil. As long as they are really neutral, and not representing their states in any way.

“And we have been equally clear on what that neutrality looks like. These athletes must not, under any circumstances, express support for the war or the Russian and Belarusian regimes. This extends to athlete funding, to athletes funded by their states to compete in events, or who are in receipt of funding or sponsorship directly aligned with their states, such as from state-controlled companies like Gazprom, cannot be considered to be neutral. Athletes directly funded by their states to compete in sports competitions who would not be present at those events without that support are de facto representatives of those states. They are only there by virtue of being funded by, trained by, selected by, supported by, the Russian state.”

● “And in that sense, from the UK perspective, both ourselves and the International Olympic Committee … are both seeking the same outcome, ensuring that Russian and Belarusian states cannot be represented in international sport.”

She concluded that “[T]he IOC’s recommendations do not go far enough for us, and they leave far too many unanswered questions.”

The opening remarks by Tiny Kox (NED), the President of PACE, framed the issue this way:

“The Assembly noted that the International Olympic Committee and the sports movement at large currently seems to change the position it held since the 24th of February last year and to favor the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in international competitions while other stakeholders strongly objected to this. …

“However, taking a decision to allow the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in the 2024 Paris Games in the context of the ongoing, large-scale war of aggression of Russia against Ukraine, is considered by many as such that it would not only go strongly against the mission of Olympism to promote peace, but instead widen divisions and serve the propaganda purposes of the aggressor.

“For many, the participation of Russian athletes, a considerable number of whom are members of the Russian military of security services, is totally unthinkable and unacceptable, given the tragic loss of thousands of Ukrainian lives, serious war crimes committed by the Russian army in Ukraine and the pain and the suffering which this aggression continues to cause today.”

The IOC and the international federations were strongly represented, by Armenian wrestler (and 2012 Olympic 74 kg silver medalist in Greco-Roman) Arsen Julfalakyan, Chair of the United World Wrestling Athletes Commission, and Namibian shooter Gaby Ahrens, Chair of the Association of National Olympic Committees Athletes Commission. In addition, Francesco Ricci Bitti (ITA), Chair of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations and European Olympic Committees Athletes Commission Chair (and 2008 Olympic discus champ) Gerd Kanter (EST) also appeared.

All supported the IOC’s recommendations, using much of the same language from the 28 March news conference (and subsequent news release) announcing the Executive Board action.

~ Rich Perelman

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