Having spent months laying the groundwork for the inevitable announcement in spite of widespread protests within Ukraine and other parts of Europe, the International Olympic Committee finally confirmed Friday that some Russian athletes will be allowed to compete at the 2024 Olympic Summer Games in Paris.
The IOC said in a statement released late Friday afternoon Switzerland time that eight Russians and three from Belarus are among 4,600 athletes worldwide who have so far qualified for the Summer Games. Athletes and officials from Ukraine, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have repeatedly urged the IOC to exclude Russia and Belarus from the Olympics because of the invasion that started in February 2022.
The decision was long-awaited but in another way surprising at its timing; Gene Sykes, board chair of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, was at an Olympic Summit event in Lausanne earlier this week and said Thursday during a media teleconference “no new decisions were made (by the IOC), we don’t anticipate any decision will be made until sometime early next year, but we don’t expect it’s going to be a long time.”
The IOC’s stance toward Russia since its invasion of the Ukraine has taken more twists than a gymnast in midair. The IOC urged international sports bodies to block and isolate athletes, officials and host cities from Russia and Belarus within days of the invasion starting, a move that was praised by world sport observers given its swiftness and the IOC’s relative laxness in punishing Russia for widespread doping schemes.
But Friday’s decision is the culmination of a long process in which the IOC looked to reintegrate Russia and its military ally Belarus into global sports, reversing its initial decisions, and nine months after it urged sports governing bodies to look at ways to let individual athletes compete. Since the IOC began softening its stance, criticism of its position has clearly wounded IOC President Thomas Bach, who in February shot back that “history will show who is doing more for peace.”
Under the IOC guidelines, it is up to each Olympic sport’s governing body to assess and enforce neutral status for individual athletes who have not actively supported the war and are not contracted to military or state security agencies. The IOC still backs excluding Russia from team sports and no Olympic sport has yet defied that regulation.
Those who are given neutral status must compete without national identity of flag, anthem or colors. Some federations have stayed firm against allowing Russian and Belarussians to compete; World Athletics’ ban remains in place “for the foreseeable future,” after a vote of the World Athletics council in March.
The International Paralympic Committee already decided it will allow Russian and Belarussian athletes to compete at the 2024 Paralympic Summer Games in Paris, a reversal from the IPC’s stance less than two years ago in Beijing, when the Russian delegation was excluded a day before the opening ceremony in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The IPC previously excluded Russia from the 2016 Paralympics because of widespread doping and cover-ups in multiple sports. It allowed Russian athletes to compete without national symbols at the 2018 Winter Paralympics and the most recent Summer Paralympics in Tokyo in 2021.
The IOC suspended the Russian Olympic Committee in October for breaching the Olympic Charter by incorporating sports bodies in four regions in eastern Ukraine. But IOC Spokesman Mark Adams said at the time the suspension did not affect the possibility of neutral Russian athletes competing at next year’s Olympic Summer Games in Paris.
Instead, the ROC cannot receive any funding from the Olympic movement as part of its sanctions — a move that had not been made by the IOC in the 20 months since Russia invaded Ukraine. The Russian Olympic Committee included sports councils in Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia as its members on October 5 even as those councils are under the authority of Ukraine’s National Olympic Committee.
The IOC announcement comes on the same day Vladimir Putin — who earlier received the Olympic Order and then had that honor rescinded when Russia invaded Ukraine — moved to prolong his grip on Russia for at least another six years, announcing his candidacy in the presidential election next March that he is all but certain to win. Putin, 71, is already the longest-serving Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who died in 1953.