The Sports Examiner: IOC says Russians, Belarusian can return as neutrals; Russia fumes at restrictions, Bach leadership

IOC President Thomas Bach (GER) at Tuesday's news conference (Photo: IOC video screen shot)

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Following its carefully-prepared, carefully-staged pathway from December’s Olympic Summit, the International Olympic Committee Executive Board announced recommendations to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to be able to complete on an individual, neutral basis, in international sports competitions.

IOC President Thomas Bach (GER) began an hour-long news conference by reading the 1,748-word news release in its entirety, which began with a declaration:

“The [Executive Board] reiterates that the participation of athletes with a Russian or Belarusian passport at the Olympic Games Paris 2024 was not considered either in the consultations or in its deliberations today. The IOC expressly reserves the right to decide about their participation at the appropriate time, even if they would be considered to have qualified according to the qualification criteria set by their respective International Federations (IFs).”

This was followed by comments about how the IOC “feels deeply for the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian Olympic community, whose pain and suffering are beyond imagination” and yet another statement of the IOC’s limits:

“It was also emphasised that the Olympic Games cannot prevent wars and conflicts. Nor can they address all the political and social challenges in our world. This is the realm of politics. But the Olympic Games can set an example for a world where everyone respects the same rules and one another.”

The statement then noted that the views of the “Ukrainian sports community” were considered and then dismissed them, explaining:

“The 70 other ongoing armed conflicts and wars around the world (source: Crisis Group, CrisisWatch Database) were also considered, including the situations in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and the southern Caucasus. It was noted that NOCs in the regions impacted by these armed conflicts and wars are following the principles of the Olympic Charter. They are not requesting the exclusion of athletes from the other party in the armed conflict or war, and they are allowing their athletes to compete in international sporting competitions without restrictions.”

The IOC then, again, pledged allegiance to the United Nations Human Rights Council Special Rapporteurs – on whom “the IOC has to rely” – who have urged the IOC to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to be able to compete, even to the point of soldiers who have not been directly implicated in war crimes.

The business end of the statement started with the IOC painting itself as simply responding to the requests of the sports federations and others:

“During the consultations with the Olympic Movement stakeholders, the vast majority of the stakeholders were clear that they want a pathway to be opened for the competitions under their sole authority. They requested from the IOC recommendations in order to harmonise their approach, in the event that they decide to admit athletes with a Russian or Belarusian passport to their competitions. The IOC strongly recommends taking such a decision only with the provision that it can be revoked at the discretion of the IF concerned.”

The recommendations listed by the IOC primarily are:

1. Athletes with a Russian or a Belarusian passport must compete only as Individual Neutral Athletes.

“2. Teams of athletes with a Russian or Belarusian passport cannot be considered.

“3. Athletes who actively support the war cannot compete. Support personnel who actively support the war cannot be entered.

“4. Athletes who are contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military or national security agencies cannot compete. Support personnel who are contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military or national security agencies cannot be entered.

“5. Any such Individual Neutral Athlete, like all the other participating athletes, must meet all anti-doping requirements applicable to them and particularly those set out in the anti-doping rules of the IFs.”

An accompanying, five-page document with additional detail was also issued, including:

● “The definition of team sports or team events shall follow the IF regulations.”

● “With regard to other active supporting measures, all relevant circumstances, in particular public statements, including those made on social media; participation in pro-war demonstrations or events; and the displaying of any symbol supporting the war in Ukraine, for example, the ‘Z’ symbol, have to be taken into consideration.”

● “In order to ensure a harmonised interpretation of these criteria, the IFs should consider creating a single independent panel under the umbrella of the IF associations (ASOIF, AIOWF, ARISF) to take the decisions.”

● “Athletes must participate in competitions as ‘Individual Neutral Athletes’ in English and ‘Athletes Individuels Neutres’ in French, and use ‘AIN’ as the acronym.”

● “IFs and international sports event organisers must ensure that spectators are prohibited from bringing flags of, and other items that nay be associated with, the Russian Federation or Republic of Belarus (current and historical) into the venue.”

Russian and Belarusian athletes are supposed to register themselves and not be registered by their national federations, and their uniforms and associated clothing “must be completely white or unicolor,” unless a sport’s rules require otherwise.

The regulations also apply to technical officials from Russia or Belarus, who are also now eligible to be part of competitions again as well.

Tuesday’s meetings were solely devoted to the Russian and Belarusian re-entry issue; the Executive Board will meet on Wednesday and Thursday to review other matters, including what to do about boxing and other sports issues dealing with Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028.

“The parameters announced are absolutely unacceptable. The neutral status is a violation of human rights, which a U.N. expert has pointed out. We consider the proposed conditions unreasonable, legally unsound and excessive. We strongly disagree with additional anti-doping procedures for the Russian athletes.”

That’s Russian Olympic Committee President Stanislav Pozdnyakov reacting to the IOC’s announcement on Tuesday, further noting:

“As for team sports, we are dealing with a clear passport-based discrimination. This prohibits almost 30% of athletes from competing. Such approach contradicts the Olympic Charter, to any norms.

“The current parameters will not facilitate the admission of Russian and Belarusian athletes to the competition. The decision is a farce, the basic principles of the Olympic Charter are violated.

“The position announced today on the non-admission to international competitions of Russian athletes who are registered in the military and law enforcement agencies or have contractual relations with them is no longer just another chapter in the list of gross discriminatory sanctions. We believe that this criterion lays the foundation for the internal conflict in the Russian sports, has the direct goal of splitting the community of Russian athletes, dividing them into acceptable and the rest.”

Reactions from Russian sports officials were uniformly negative, as expected in the case of any restrictions:

● Dmitry Svishchev, Chair of the State Duma Committee on Physical Culture and Sports:

“Completely illegal recommendations. The IOC decided that it had made a mistake by announcing the possibility of admitting our athletes, and now it is going to correct it in this way. Bach declared that athletes are not to blame and it is necessary to defend their interests, but he does something completely different. It is a normal practice all over the world when leading athletes belong to clubs, that they are related to the [national federation]. Then apply this to all countries.”

● Vyacheslav Fetisov, a two-time ice hockey gold medalist in Sarajevo and Calgary who played in the National Hockey League from 1989-98, and now a State Duma Deputy ( translation):

“It is clear that the lawlessness continues. The military can travel around the world, but they can’t perform, so what is this? In Germany, there are athletes who belong to the Ministry of the Interior, and sports there are under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior, and Thomas Bach knows about it like no one else.

“Such recommendations trample on sports principles, some pretexts that have nothing to do with sports were sucked out of their fingers. People’s dream was taken away from them, it’s a travesty of rights and of all human principles. The laws of the countries where athletes train should be respected.”

● Maxim Agapitov, President of the Russian Weightlifting Federation:

“It was impossible to expect anything else from the IOC today. This is all part of the strategy that the West organized against us. Bach is an absolutely dependent figure who perfectly understands that the best way out of the situation is a categorical acceptance of the position of one side or the other, but is not capable of taking this decisive step. And if you are guided by common sense in choosing, then the head of the IOC should have made completely different decisions, and not those that sounded today.

“Bach is forced to make some promises to both, and then refuse them and rush from one side to the other. Today we saw another act of the performance, the ending of which has long been clear to everyone. The sane have long drawn conclusions and do not expect anything. at least from the next Olympics.”

● Valentina Rodionenko, the national gymnastics coach:

“The conditions under which our athletes are offered to compete are absolutely unacceptable. I agree with the statement of the President of the Russian Olympic Committee, Stanislav Pozdnyakov, who said that the IOC recommendations violate human rights. Bach again spoke a lot, but what is he leading to? Everyone has known for a long time.”

Dmitry Vasiliev, a biathlon relay gold medalist in 1984 and 1988, was even more negative:

“It is not necessary to agree to such conditions, because they discriminate against our athletes. Moreover, on political grounds, although the IOC should be a sports organization and not be related to politics. But now the law enforcement officers themselves are violating it.

“But even if these conditions weren’t there, then you still don’t need to go to this Olympics, because no one can ensure security at it. Paris is now on fire, what will be there in a year, no one knows, maybe even more so; they will not miss the opportunity to arrange a provocation. Yes, and in subjective sports, the same story can turn out as in Tokyo with the Averina sisters in rhythmic gymnastics. … Why go there then?”

On Monday, a joint statement from the Foreign Ministers of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia called for the continued full ban of Russian and Belarusian athletes, which included a specific answer to the U.N. Special Rapporteurs:

“We wish to stress that it is not athletes’ nationality that determines their role, but the fact that they are sponsored/supported by their governments or businesses backing up the Kremlin regime, which continues its war of aggression against Ukraine, or even they are affiliated with the Russian military directly.

“We deem it necessary to remind that, day by day, the Russian military keeps attacking Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure including sports facilities and killing Ukrainians including Ukrainian athletes. Millions of Ukrainian citizens including athletes and their families were forced to leave their homes in the face of Russia’s occupation.

“Many athletes from Ukraine are still prevented from participating in sport events because of Russia’s attack on their country. There exists not a single reason to move away from the exclusion regime for Russian and Belarusian athletes set by the IOC more than a year ago, immediately after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion into Ukraine. …

“We remind that Russia and Belarus have at their disposal a way forward for their athletes to return to the international sports community, namely ending the war of aggression launched by Russia with complicity of Belarus and restoring respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within the internationally recognized borders.”

Observed: “We will not be able to come up with a solution which pleases everyone. With this we may have to live.”

That’s IOC chief Bach from a Reuters story on the opening of Tuesday’s Executive Board meeting, projecting the impact of the IOC Executive Board’s recommendations on Russian and Belarusian re-entry into international competitions, but without any promises about the Paris 2024 Olympic or Milan Cortina 2026 Winter Games.

Bach said at his news conference that the Executive Board was “unanimous” in its agreement to the recommendations and regulations released on Tuesday. Of course it was.

The entire Russia-return program is the latest in a long series of Bach productions. He has completely reformed and re-formatted the IOC and the Olympic Movement in his 10 years as its chief, U-turning the way bidding, building and running an Olympic Games – and the rest of the Olympic Movement – is done.

For this, he has received considerable praise, often grudgingly, from long-time IOC critics.

He is diligent, precise, unflappable, conciliatory but also immovable once he finds the answer he is looking for. He is never off-message and always fully alert. There are no missteps.

And while there are contradictions in plain sight, he is willing to live with them once the pathway is determined. The new Russian-Belarusian “re-entry” recommendations showcase this:

● Remember the discussion before Tokyo 2020 about Olympic Charter Rule 50 and the freedom of athletes to demonstrate on the victory stand, or in ceremonies? There was a lengthy consultation period through the IOC Athletes’ Commission, polling which showed support for no demonstrations during awards or ceremonies, but no problem with opinions expressed in interviews or social media.

Tuesday’s recommendations tossed “support” for Russia’s war on Ukraine by Russians or Belarusians during interviews or on social media out the window.

● Bach has hammered the point that sports organizations need to be autonomous from governments. But then he slavishly insists that the IOC must follow the instructions of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s volunteer “Special Rapporteurs,” who praised the IOC’s re-entry idea for Russian and Belarusian athletes.

So, Bach then gives up autonomy to these “experts” – whose conclusions are NOT universally shared, and except for the IOC’s insistence on them would not even be recognized – except that when one Rapporteur said that any Russian solider not actually implicated in a war crime should be able to compete, the IOC ignored her.

● Bach said at the start of the Executive Board meeting on Tuesday that the inclusion of individual Russian and Belarusian athletes in sports such as road cycling, ice hockey – especially in the NHL – and tennis “works.”

Maybe he has missed the tumult in women’s tennis, where Ukrainian players are asking for more meetings with the Women’s Tennis Association board concerning Russian and Belarusian participation. Top-ranked Iga Swiatek (POL) said during the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California earlier this month:

“I feel more should be done to help Ukrainian players because everything we discuss in tennis is about Belarusian and Russian players, if they should be allowed, what’s going on with them.

“I don’t think that’s right, because we should focus more on helping Ukrainian players and providing them everything they need because they basically have to take care of all their families, and there’s a lot of baggage on their shoulders.”

The IOC’s very thorough preparation for Tuesday’s meetings and announcement shows a very sophisticated navigational effort through a cafeteria-style, confusing and conflicted stance, slicing the sausage as thinly as possible, completely confident that most – but not all – of the International Federations will do as they are told, since half or more are dependent on the IOC’s Olympic television rights shares for their continued existence.

What Tuesday’s announcement and the ultimate decision on Russian and Belarusian participation in 2024 and 2026 will also do is reset the dynamics of the IOC’s elections in 2025 for Bach’s successor.

Close observers have little doubt that Bach would like to see a female IOC member succeed him, perhaps Zimbabwe youth, arts and sports minister Kirsty Coventry (a seven-time Olympic medal winner in swimming) or Aruban lawyer Nicole Hoevertsz, head of the IOC’s Coordination Commission for Los Angeles 2028. But the Russian war on Ukraine and its tightening attachment with China will create new fissures in the IOC, possibly opening the door for experienced hands in sport and politics like World Athletics President (and double Olympic champ) Sebastian Coe, or someone with a heavier background in billion-dollar businesses such as Belgian Pierre-Olivier Beckers, former head of the Delhaize Group.

There are plenty of others who imagine themselves as the IOC President. But the IOC they strive to lead in 2025 may be very different than today, thanks to Bach’s intuition that his view of “Olympic values” is the right one against the backdrop of Russia’s continuing aggression.

~ Rich Perelman

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