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Throughout history, the Olympics have been a source of political speculation, conflict, and propaganda. For example, Serhiy Haiduk, the former commander of the Ukrainian Navy during the illegal annexation of Crimea, said that the Russians used the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games as a cover for deploying their troops to Ukrainian Crimea and subsequently seizing it.

When it suits propaganda, athletes become a marketing tool for the Putin regime. In other situations, they use the manipulative claim that sports should be “outside politics”.

History of Olympic Suspensions of Russians

Russia regularly fails to adhere to one of the key Olympic principles of fair competition and competitive spirit. In 2018, the World Anti-Doping Agency officially proved the existence of a state-sponsored doping program in Russia. Putin’s propaganda uses the “achievements” of doped Russian athletes. The first “alarm bells” for Russia sounded in 2016 at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro: their track and field and weightlifting teams, as well as the men’s rowing team, were disqualified (in the latter sport, Belarusian male athletes were also suspended). Starting with the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea, the aggressor country was deprived of the right to compete under its own flag and with its own anthem. Only clean athletes who had not been suspected of doping were allowed to participate in the Olympics, and they performed as “Olympic athletes from Russia” under the Olympic flag and with the Olympic anthem. These restrictions were eased at the two subsequent Olympics (2020 and 2022), and Russians were allowed to compete as a team of the “Russian Olympic Committee”, albeit still without the national flag and anthem.

Question of Admission of Russians and Belarusians to the 2024 Olympics and the IOC’s Position

After the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) completely suspended Russian and Belarusian athletes from international competitions. However, in the spring of 2023, the IOC’s ruling was reconsidered, and athletes from the aggressor countries could participate in the qualifying competitions for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris in a so-called “neutral” status with some caveats and reservations. 

The aggressor countries are completely excluded from team sports only. Russians and Belarusians are allowed to participate in individual sports but under several conditions. First, they must not be affiliated with the military and intelligence services of their countries (which is common in Russia and Belarus), and second, these athletes must not be involved in any form of support for the aggressive war that Putin’s regime has unleashed against Ukraine. Thirdly, athletes from aggressor countries cannot use funds from their own governments or National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and cannot participate in domestic competitions before the Olympics. They must prove this to a special IOC commission, which will decide whether or not to admit those athletes from aggressor countries who qualify for the Olympics. Advertising of Russian brands is also prohibited. Russians and Belarusians who qualify for the Olympics as “neutral” athletes will not participate in the opening ceremony parade or be included in the medal standings. They may be subject to sanctions after the Olympics for violating the rules of neutrality, supporting the war and Putin’s regime.

As for the symbols under which the Russians and Belarusians will compete, this time, the rules are stricter than at the previous Olympics, where Russians were suspended for doping. In Paris 2024, there will be no mentions of Russia, Belarus, or their National Olympic Committees, and no national flag colors on the symbols and uniforms. Instead, the IOC has developed a special anthem and emblem of “neutral” athletes in green and white colors. Importantly, the “neutrality criteria” do not include a clear requirement to condemn Russian aggression against Ukraine publicly.

International Sports Federations’ Views on the Admission of Russians and Belarusians

Each sport has its own governing body. The international federations (associations) for each sport are responsible for organizing the Olympic qualification process and determining the list of tournaments where athletes can compete for Olympic licenses. The federations have autonomy in this matter and can ignore the abovementioned IOC recommendations. Representatives of the International Olympic Committee have already announced that they will not impose sanctions on federations for violating these recommendations. The federations can be divided into three broad groups:

1.    Federations that allowed even those Russians and Belarusians who openly supported the war to participate in the qualifying competitions. These include such sports as taekwondo, judo, wrestling, fencing, tennis, and trampolining. It is worth noting that many international sports federations (boxing, shooting, chess, fencing) are under the influence of the Russian government or its affiliated oligarchs. For example, before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin was the honorary president of the International Judo Federation. For many years, the oligarch Alisher Usmanov, who is close to Putin, headed the International Fencing Federation. He still retains serious influence there and continues to sponsor it generously. In July 2023, this federation became involved in an international scandal. Ukrainian fencer Olha Harlan refused to shake hands with a "neutral" Russian woman who was found to be supporting the war. This led to the Ukrainian fencer's disqualification by the IFF, which was later lifted after the reaction of Ukrainian sports officials and politicians. At the same time, the International Tennis Federation not only allowed "neutral" athletes to compete in doubles, which is already a team competition but also resorted to pressure and sanctions against the organizers of one of the most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world, the British Wimbledon, for not allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete. It is important to understand that athletes who have been found to support the Putin and Lukashenko regimes and the war against Ukraine will still have to be reviewed by the IOC's neutrality commission if they qualify for the Olympics, but this does not guarantee their non-participation in the Olympics, given the opportunities that Russians have in international federations in some sports.

2.    Federations that follow the IOC recommendations. These include sailing and most Olympic sports. It is worth noting that in sailing, Russians and Belarusians are suspended from all international competitions except for the last round of qualification for the Olympics. This position of the international federation may be due to the reluctance to spoil relations with the IOC.

3.    Federations that completely barred Russians and Belarusians from qualifying for the Olympics (even in a "neutral" status). These include athletics, equestrianism, and gymnastics. In the latter case, however, the ban applies only to Russians; Belarusians still have a chance to qualify for the Olympics. Thus, these federations have also violated the IOC's recommendations, just like the first group. Only in the opposite direction.

Ukraine’s Position

Ukraine officially opposes the admission of Russians and Belarusians to the Olympics, even in the so-called “neutral” status. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on the French authorities to prevent Russian and Belarusian athletes from entering France to participate in the Olympics. After the information about the admission of representatives of the aggressor countries as “neutral” athletes became public in late 2023, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on the decision of the International Olympic Committee, emphasizing the IOC’s responsibility for encouraging Russia and Belarus to continue the war and kill Ukrainians, including athletes and their families.

The National Olympic Committee of Ukraine (NOC), together with the Ministry of Youth and Sports, as well as specialized federations in various sports, are advocating on the international stage for the total suspension of Russians and Belarusians from the 2024 Olympics. This would be the best-case scenario. At the very least, the goal is to prevent athletes who have been found to have promoted war or supported the dictatorial regimes of Putin and Lukashenko from participating in the Olympics. Thus, negotiations are underway with those international sports federations that have not yet clearly decided whether to follow the abovementioned IOC recommendations. The National Olympic Committee, the Ministry of Youth and Sports, and national sports federations are responding to cases of international sports federations violating the IOC recommendations to exclude athletes from Russia and Belarus who support dictatorial regimes and war from Olympic qualifications, as well as to exclude aggressor countries from competing in team events. Such statements were made public in relation to the international federations of wrestling, taekwondo, judo, and tennis. The NOC of Ukraine also collects evidence of Russian and Belarusian athletes violating IOC rules and submits it to the Neutrality Commission, which the International Olympic Committee established to verify the compliance of Russian and Belarusian athletes with IOC regulations.

After the IOC announced in early 2023 that “individual neutral athletes (AINs) who have qualified under the existing qualification systems of the International Federations will be eligible to compete at the 2024 Paris Olympics under certain conditions,” the head of the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine, Vadym Hutsait, wrote on his Facebook page about the possibility of Ukraine boycotting the Olympics if representatives of the aggressor countries were allowed to participate. This provoked a reaction from IOC President Thomas Bach, who threatened to impose sanctions on the Ukrainian NOC in case of a boycott of the Olympics in Paris. Several Ukrainian Olympic athletes, including Oleh Verniayev, Yaroslava Mahuchikh, Mykhailo Romanchuk, and Servant of the People MP and current Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling champion Zhan Beleniuk, were not happy with the idea either. In November 2023, after the IOC decided to allow so-called “neutral” athletes to participate in the Olympics, acting Minister of Youth and Sports of Ukraine Matviy Bidnyi once again brought up the possibility of a boycott of the Olympics but later retracted his words.

We have doubts that Ukraine will boycott the Olympics. Still, it depends on the quality of the IOC’s “neutrality commission” work and whether Russian and Belarusian athletes who support the war will be allowed to participate in the Olympics. Then Ukraine will resort to softer means of protest against the participation of so-called “neutral” athletes in the Olympics, which, even if they violate the IOC regulations, will not be critical and will not lead to sanctions against our athletes.

Positions of International Organizations and Other Countries

The Council of Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly oppose the so-called “neutral” status of athletes from Russia and Belarus. In the summer of 2023, Council of Europe Deputy Secretary General Bjørn Berge supported suspending athletes from aggressor countries and said that sport has never been and will never be outside politics. In early 2024, the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Theodoros Rousopoulos, also condemned the admission of so-called “neutral” athletes to the Olympics.

In early 2023, 35 countries agreed to jointly demand that the International Olympic Committee completely exclude Russians and Belarusians from the Olympics. The United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Poland, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, Japan, and the Baltic and Scandinavian countries were among them. There were numerous other similar declarations by groups of countries and individual states before and after that.

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, spoke out against the admission of Russians and Belarusians to the French capital, even in a “neutral” status. Meanwhile, the president of the Olympic host country, Emmanuel Macron, although he opposes Russian aggression, called for the participation of so-called “neutral” athletes in the Olympics in March 2024, explaining that it was a “message of peace.” Macron said he would ask Russia for a ceasefire during the Olympics. This is despite the fact that the aggressor country has already violated the “Olympic truce” three times during Putin’s presidency alone. However, given Macron’s recent shift in rhetoric on the war in Ukraine toward a tougher line, we cannot rule out the possibility that his position may change before the start of the Olympics.

Position of Russian Politicians, Sports Officials and Athletes

Despite Vladimir Putin’s and his regime’s claims that sports should be “out of politics,” almost the entire Russian sports system is part of state propaganda. Sports officials, coaches, athletes, and former sports stars are almost all directly dependent on state funding and comply with the Putin regime. In individual sports included in the Olympic program, this percentage is close to 100%.

As strange as it may sound, there is a debate in the terrorist country about whether the athletes who qualify for the Olympics will be able to participate in the Olympics in the so-called “neutral” status or whether they will be subject to a boycott. The head of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), Stanislav Pozdnyakov, said that a mandatory requirement for the so-called “neutral” athletes to be allowed to participate in the Olympics would be to sign a special declaration condemning the aggressive war that Putin has unleashed against Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s aide, Igor Levitin, said Russian athletes would not sign such documents because it would violate Russian law. Russian Sports Minister Oleg Matitsyn shared a similar opinion, “It is unacceptable to follow the recommendations of the International Olympic Committee and international federations when they cross the so-called red line, demanding that Russian and Belarusian athletes condemn the state’s policy and the president’s actions.” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, commented on this alleged demand, “Of course, no one here could have imagined that a Russian athlete would sign a piece of paper condemning the SMO in order to sell his Fatherland for these pieces of silver. Anyone who would do that would simply become a spawn of hell.” The last two comments can be considered manifestations of the “mirroring” propaganda tactic. Levitin and Peskov deliberately “forget” that it was the Putin regime’s aggression against Ukraine and its hundreds of thousands of victims that led to this situation.

As a result, the International Olympic Committee decided that so-called “neutral” athletes would not have to sign any such declarations. Even without these requirements, some sports officials and politicians with sports backgrounds call for a boycott of the Summer Olympics. This idea has already become a reality in some sports, particularly because of the aforementioned CAS decision. These include artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, swimming, diving, archery, fencing, sailing, weightlifting, and boxing. This can be considered a case of the “flag-waving” propaganda tactic. Their representatives also circulate propaganda statements with attempts to portray Russians as “victims” and use “intimidation” propaganda tactics. In particular, the head of the Russian Wrestling Association, Mikhail Mamiashvili, said that their “neutral” athletes could be admitted to the Olympics only as a “refugee team” (there have been similar precedents at the Olympics), “I have no other comments on this, except that those who propose this should be sent to one place known to everyone. If they want to see us at the Olympics as a refugee team, then we need to go to Paris in tanks. There is no other option.”

“Friendship Games” — Russia’s “Alternative” to the Olympics

In response to the suspension of Russian athletes from the Olympic Games, Putin’s regime has scheduled the so-called “Friendship Games” for September 2024, which propaganda indirectly positions as an alternative to the Olympics but “without politics.” They will be held, of course, in Russia. The organizers of this “pseudo-Olympics” plan to attract athletes from more than 70 countries. Competitions are scheduled in 33 sports and 36 events. No qualifications are required; athletes will be invited to the “pseudo-Olympics” individually. The prize money for the victory will be substantial compared to many Olympic sports - about 40 thousand dollars. The organizing committee of the Friendship Games covers all transportation and organizational costs.

In order to lend them at least a little more legitimacy, the Russians created the “International Friendship Organization” based in the United Arab Emirates and hold these “games” allegedly under the auspices of an “international” sports organization. There is no doubt that they will be used to the maximum extent possible by Russian propaganda to glorify Russian athletes.

The International Olympic Committee has criticized the so-called “Friendship Games” and called on national Olympic committees to ignore the event, “In view of the increasing politicization of world sport, we ask all NOCs to exercise caution regarding this initiative. Any participation by NOCs in the World Friendship Games would be contrary to the collective goal of the Olympic Movement to preserve the independence and autonomy of sport.”

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) also opposed the participation of athletes in this propaganda event due to Russia’s numerous violations of doping rules in recent years. Its president, Witold Bańka, said, “The Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) still lacks compliance status, so in our opinion, these competitions endanger the health of the athletes and the integrity of the competition. The possible participation in these competitions of those who are signatories to the WADA code may have certain consequences, because, as I said, the Friendship Games do not have an anti-doping policy and a proper program. So those who decide to participate may face consequences.”

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused the IOC of “racism and neo-Nazism” because of the IOC’s calls for athletes not to participate in the Friendship Games, “Such statements from the mouth of an organization that is supposed to defend the Olympic ideals are confusing only to those who do not know what drives the leadership of this structure. These decisions demonstrate how far the IOC has strayed from its stated principles and slipped into racism and neo-Nazism.” This can be considered an example of the “labeling” propaganda tactic.

State Duma deputy Dmitry Svishchev, who is in charge of sports, also criticized the IOC’s position, “They are intimidating athletes and federations in order to prevent the Games from taking place - this is sabotage and discrimination on a national basis. The IOC is turning into a punitive body that has nothing to do with the real development of Olympism.”

Russian Sports Minister Oleg Matitsyn said that Russia does not consider the so-called “Friendship Games” as an alternative to the Olympics. Still, his words appear to be, at the very least, disingenuous because these “pseudo-Olympics” will be held for the first time in 2024, when Russia has been finally suspended from the Olympics for real due to its aggressive war against Ukraine, even though it wasn’t completely banned.

Thus, we can see that Russian propaganda is trying to use the Olympics in every way possible for its own purposes: to portray an alleged “global conspiracy” against Russia, to make it look like a victim, to discredit international sports organizations and Western governments. The Russian propaganda machine uses the slogan “sport is out of politics.” Still, in Russia, sport is highly politicized and a tool for propaganda for the Putin regime and its war of aggression. The International Olympic Committee has partially allowed Russians and Belarusians to participate in the Games in a so-called “neutral” status with many restrictions. However, this does not make the players stop being Russians or Belarusians. Given the realities, we can only hope that the IOC’s Individual Neutral Athlete Eligibility Review Panel (AINERP) will fulfill its mission and prevent athletes with evidence of support for the Putin and Lukashenko regimes and the aggressive war against Ukraine from participating in the Olympics, as dictatorial regimes will no doubt use them for their propaganda. Some of them have already successfully passed the Olympic qualification.

Illustration on the main page by Nataliya Lobach

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