International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach on Tuesday defended plans to get Russian and Belarusian athletes back into competitions as neutrals, saying their participation “works” despite the ongoing war in Ukraine.
The IOC sanctioned Russia and Belarus after the February 2022 invasion but is now eager to see athletes come back across all sports and have a chance to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympics.
It has set out a pathway for these competitors to earn Olympic slots through Asian qualifying and left it up to international federations to decide on organisation, but has faced headwinds, with Ukraine threatening to boycott the Paris Games should they compete there, even as neutrals.
“Participation of athletes with Russian and Belarusian passports in international competitions works,” Bach said in his address at the start of the IOC’s executive board meeting at its headquarters in Lausanne.
“We see this almost every day in a number of sports, most prominently in tennis but also in cycling, in some table tennis competitions.”
“We see it ice hockey, handball we see it in football and in other leagues in the United States but also in Europe and we also see it in other continents,” he said.
“In none of these competition security incidents have been happening,” he said.
Russians and Belarusians have been competing as neutrals in some sports. Their presence at some events, such as tennis tournaments, has triggered angry reactions from some other athletes.
A dozen countries boycotted this month’s women’s world boxing championships in protest at their presence at the event, and earlier on Tuesday more than 300 fencers wrote to Bach to ask the IOC to reconsider allowing them back, calling it a “catastrophic error” should Russia and Belarus return.
“The governments on whose territory the competitions are taking place are issuing visas (to Russians and Belarusian athletes) with very few exceptions, and in other countries they are even issuing working permits for these players and athletes,” Bach said.
Bach said politics could not be a part of sports competitions and athletes should not be punished for their passports.
“We will not be able to come up with a solution which pleases everyone. With this we may have to live.”
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