The IOC wants Russians in the 2024 Olympics — but how would that work?

CBC Sports' daily newsletter explains why the International Olympic Committee wants Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete at the 2024 Paris Games, and how the idea could be tough to pull off.

Getting around their ban from international sports could be tough

A man in a suit sits in front of a wall depicting the Olympic rings.
IOC president Thomas Bach and his organization face many challenges as they try to ensure Russian and Belarusian athletes compete at the next Olympics. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports' daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what's happening in sports by subscribing here.

Nearly a year after the invasion of Ukraine started, Russia and its ally Belarus remain almost completely frozen out of international sporting events. While you'll still see athletes from those countries competing in professional spaces like the NHL and the major tennis tours where it's possible to ignore, or at least obscure, their national identity, Russians and Belarusians are banned from world championships, World Cups and most other significant global competitions in the Olympic-sports realm.

But, with the 2024 Summer Games set to open exactly 18 months from today, the International Olympic Committee has made it clear that it wants Russian and Belarusian athletes competing in Paris. In a statement yesterday, the IOC said the "vast majority" of "stakeholders" it consulted — including IOC members, athlete representatives, international governing bodies and national Olympic committees — favour lifting the bans, on the grounds that the Olympics have a "unifying mission" and that "governments must not decide which athletes can participate in which competition and which athletes cannot" and "no athlete should be prevented from competing just because of their passport."

As such, the IOC said, a "pathway" should "be further explored" for Russians and Belarusians to compete "under strict conditions." Those include only allowing athletes who have not undermined the IOC's "peace mission" by "actively supporting the war in Ukraine." Russians and Belarusians would also have to compete as "neutral athletes" — meaning without their flag, anthem and other national signifiers. That was the case for Russians at the last few Olympics as part of the sanctions for their country's massive doping scandal.

The IOC's idea, once again, is to punish the country, not the athletes (though how much you're really punishing the country is questionable when the 2022 team was called "Russian Olympic Committee" and wore the red, blue and white colours of the Russian flag).

But, just because there's recent precedent for what the IOC is proposing, doesn't mean it will be easy to simply transfer the IOC's "solution" to the Russian doping scandal onto the current situation. In fact, it's much more complicated this time. There are many ways this can go off the rails.

First, Ukraine is (of course) not happy about the IOC's proposal. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday that "athletes from Russia should have no place at the Olympic Games in Paris," after spending part of his day lobbying French president Emmanuel Macron for support.

Macron has said "sport should not be politicized" and that "athletes from all countries, sometimes including countries at war" should be permitted at major events, including the Paris Games. In yesterday's statement, the IOC cited the example of athletes from Yugoslavia being allowed to compete as "independent athletes" at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona while their country was under sanctions from the United Nations in relation to its civil war. Still, it's possible that other allies of Ukraine — and of course Ukraine itself — could consider a boycott rather than compete alongside Russians.

Another challenge for the IOC is that it can't simply admit athletes from Russia and Belarus (or any other country) to the Olympics. They have to qualify. That's done by achieving results at certain international events, but Russians and Belarusians were banned from many of those last year by the world governing bodies that run them.

The IOC indicated it would lobby those governing bodies (such as swimming's World Aquatics or track and field's World Athletics) to accept its proposal for "neutral" athletes, which would give Russians and Belarusians a clearer path to the Olympics. But it'll be up to those organizations whether to lift their bans.

That's a tough sell considering how many world governing bodies are based in Western Europe and how many of the events they sanction are held there. If they were to allow Russians and Belarusians to compete in — and against — the part of the world where opposition to the Russian invasion is most fierce, the risk of boycotts by individual athletes and even whole countries would be big.

Recognizing this problem, the IOC is entertaining some alternatives. It said yesterday that it "welcomed and appreciated" an offer from the Olympic Council of Asia — a governing body with a membership of 45 national Olympic committees — to give Russians and Belarusians an opportunity to qualify for the Olympics by competing in its events. Today, the OCA formally invited Russian and Belarusian athletes to the Asian Games in China this fall. That event serves as an Olympic qualifier for several sports including archery and boxing.

There's one more problem. Let's say the IOC gets its wish and the global sports community agrees that Russian and Belarusian athletes should compete at the Paris Olympics in 2024. What will it look like on the ground?

Pro tennis is sometimes held up as an example of how Russians and Belarusians can play as "neutrals" without much fuss. At the ongoing Australian Open, where flags from those countries are banned, Belarusians Aryna Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka both made it to the women's semifinals without their nationality seeming to cause a stir. But organizers spent today putting out the fire sparked by fans waving Russian flags, one featuring an image of Vladimir Putin, outside of the main show court after Russia's Andrey Rublev lost his men's quarterfinal to Novak Djokovic. Adding to the controversy, the Serbian star's dad was seen posing for pictures with the Russian fans.

The IOC suggested it would avoid such a nightmare at the Olympics by banning provocative flags, chants and t-shirts (the latter two have also been an issue at the Australian Open) across "the entire venue." Maybe that will work. But, as tennis is learning, maintaining neutrality is much easier said than done.

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