Ukraine’s athletes have accused the International Olympic Committee of rewarding Vladimir Putin’s aggression and being “on the wrong side of history” in an escalating war of words over whether Russians should compete at the Paris 2024 Games. The IOC recently moved away from having an outright ban on athletes from Russia and Belarus and is investigating ways they can qualify for the Olympics under a neutral flag.
In a letter to Ukraine’s National Olympic Committee, sent last week, the IOC president, Thomas Bach, criticised Ukraine’s threat to boycott the Games, saying it would violate the Olympic charter. That stance has angered Ukraine’s athletes, who have hit back by suggesting the IOC is “kowtowing” to Russia.
“Russia’s war of aggression has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, destroyed infrastructure, threatened the stability of the global food supply, and risked nuclear catastrophe,” they say in a statement in conjunction with the athlete union, Global Athlete. “The IOC is rewarding Putin’s aggression while the death and destruction of his victims are being ignored. The IOC must choose a side in this war.”
Ukraine’s athletes also take issue with the IOC’s claim that the Olympic Games unites the world through peaceful competition, calling it “a utopian view that disregards the way sport is routinely used as a tool of authoritarian states”.
“The Russian state has been a prime example, using its home Olympic Games in 2014, along with a state-sponsored doping program, to build goodwill both at home and abroad before annexing Crimea.
“In 2022 it did the same, using the Beijing Games to strengthen its bond with China before invading Ukraine. Russia has promoted athletes to prominent positions in the armed forces and touted athletic success as signs of Russian superiority. These actions have been possible because Russia has manipulated and controlled the governing bodies of sport to its advantage.”
The statement follows a call from the world heavyweight champion, Oleksandr Usyk, not to allow Russian athletes to compete in Paris. “The Russian army is killing Ukrainian athletes and coaches and destroying sports grounds as well as sports halls,” he said this week. “The medals that Russian athletes are going to win are medals of blood, deaths and tears.”
Bach underlines his “unwavering commitment to solidarity with the Ukrainian Olympic community”, but says a boycott would only harm the athletes of Ukraine since “previous boycotts did not achieve their political ends”.
Bach also points out that the “concept under discussion” by the IOC is similar to the Australian Open tennis tournament, where players from Russia and Belarus competed as neutrals, with the women’s singles won by the Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka. He also makes it clear that no Russian who supports the war will be allowed to compete in Paris.
His approach has cut little cloth with Ukraine athletes. They conclude their statement by claiming “the IOC continues to be on the wrong side of history” before insisting that “sponsors, host cities, and national governments must stop tolerating the IOC’s kowtowing to Russia”.