IOC insists it has 'no plans for Russian or Belarusian delegation' at 2024 Olympics
Ukrainian tennis player Elina Svitolina calls for complete ban on Russian athletes
The International Olympic Committee pushed back against the mayor of Paris on Wednesday, insisting there were no plans for "a Russian or Belarusian delegation" at the 2024 Games while also acknowledging some athletes from those countries could be welcomed.
The IOC statement came a day after Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said no Russians or Belarusians should be allowed to compete at next year's Olympics because of their involvement in the war in Ukraine.
Olympic leaders have set out a path for athletes from Russia and Belarus who have not actively supported the war to try to qualify and compete as "neutral athletes" without a national identity such as team uniforms, flags and anthems.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, along with many sports leaders and athletes, have consistently said all potential competitors from Russia or Belarus should be banned from Paris, extending a decision that was applied in most Olympic sports within days of the war starting last February.
Olympic bodies and lawmakers in the Baltic and Nordic regions of Europe have also publicly supported Ukraine in standing against the IOC's preferred route. They have warned of a possible boycott, and are expected to join an online call of sports ministers Friday hosted by the British government.
Russian athletes have avoided being banned outright from the past four Olympics dating back to 2016 in fallout from a scandal of state-backed doping.
At the past three Olympics, they competed without their national identity but in uniforms that clearly identified them as Russians. The first decision for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games was by the IOC, and judges at the Court of Arbitration for Sport decided conditions for Russians at the Tokyo Olympics held in 2021 and the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.
The IOC has cited advice from a human rights expert that banning athletes on the basis of their passport would be discrimination, and sought to clarify its position Wednesday.
"There are no plans for a Russian or Belarusian delegation or the flags of these countries at the Olympic Games Paris 2024," the Olympic body said. "The only option that could be considered are individual, neutral athletes like we have seen last year at the French Open in tennis and recently again at the Australian Open in tennis and in other professional sports."
Tennis and cycling are among the few sports to let Russian and Belarusian athletes continue to compete without their country's name, flag or anthem.
Qualification paths are being sought in Asia — such as at the Asian Games that start in September in Hangzhou, China — to avoid security issues and hostility from some competitors that are likely in Europe.
Final decisions on the possible eligibility of athletes will rest with the governing bodies of individual sports. The umbrella group of Summer Olympic sports, known as ASOIF, will meet on March 3 to discuss the issue.
The French government does not rule out a potential "sanction" against Russia at the Paris Olympics, its spokesperson Olivier Veran said Wednesday in a news conference, answering a question from The Associated Press.
"So far, no official decision has been made with the IOC" regarding the Paris Olympics, Veran said. "But you know that France has been consistently in favour of fully and completely applying any sanction."
Ukrainian bronze medallist calls for complete ban
Meanwhile, Ukrainian tennis player and Olympic bronze medallist Elina Svitolina pushed for a total ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Svitolina, who won her bronze medal in singles at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, is visiting Ukraine for the first time since Russia invaded the country last year. She is the latest to call for a complete ban on athletes from Russia and Belarus because of the war.
"It's going to be very sad, and the wrong message would be sent to the world if Olympics going to stay with the decision to put them [Russia and Belarus] under a neutral flag," Svitolina said in the interview. "I don't think this is the right decision."
Svitolina, who had a baby with husband Gael Monfils in October, said sports and politics in Russia are inseparable.
"You can see that in Russia, sports are connected to the government," Svitolina said.
Speakers at the Ukrainian Olympic Committee's meeting raised concerns about Russia using the Paris Games for propaganda and noted the close ties between some athletes and the Russian military.
"Boycott would be one of the options because obviously what Russian army is doing to Ukrainian people, to Ukraine, it's a horrible thing for us," Svitolina said. "I cannot imagine going to the Olympics like nothing is happening to Ukraine."
Svitolina said the decision to boycott should be discussed with the country's Olympic committee with input from every Ukrainian athlete involved. She, however, didn't hesitate to say what she thought was the right thing to do.
After a month-long break, Svitolina said she is "actively preparing" to return to tennis in April. Her first visit to Ukraine marks the longest time she has been separated from her daughter.
"Of course, I want to be with her, but I have a bigger mission to do for free Ukrainian people," said Svitolina, who came to the country as an ambassador of United 24, Zelenskyy's platform for collecting charitable donations.
During her brief stay, she also met Zelenskyy.
Originally from Odesa, which now suffers frequent power outages because of damaged electricity infrastructure, Svitolina said Feb. 24 — the date that will mark one year since the invasion started — will forever be a tragic day for every Ukrainian.
"This is something that you would never wish your enemy to face," Svitolina said. "It's a very sad day."