LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) – The competition that could define the 2024 Paris Olympics is being played 18 months before the medals are awarded. This presents the International Olympic Committee with a political challenge with echoes of the 1980s.
Ukraine launched its campaign to have Russia and military ally Belarus banned from the next Summer Games on Friday, speaking in Kiev about a boycott and support from sympathetic governments in the Baltics and elsewhere in Europe.
The IOC responded in a statement that “it is a pity that politicians abuse athletes and sports as tools to achieve their political goals.”
The pushback has been fierce in the 10 days since the IOC set out its preferred route for Russian and Belarusian athletes who do not actively support the war to try to qualify for Paris as neutrals.
Citing human rights arguments – that no athlete should face discrimination just because of the passport they hold – the IOC seems ready to punish the protesting parties rather than the aggressors in the war.
The IOC pointed to its own rules and Olympic history to back it up.
It is a document of rules that “regulates the organization, operation and performance of the Olympic Movement and establishes the conditions for the celebration of the Olympic Games”.
It says that each of the 206 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) is obliged to participate in the Olympic Games by sending athletes.
What it does not say is any clear framework for action against Russia and Belarus in the current situation.
“There is nothing in the Olympic Charter that says if a government starts a war that the UN opposes, then the NOC must be suspended,” said Sylvia Schenk, a German-based lawyer and sports governance expert who advises the IOC on human rights.
Any National Olympic Committee can decide to boycott the Olympic Games based on fair principle – knowing that in Lausanne the act will not be easily forgotten or forgiven.
No team has boycotted the Olympics since North Korea snubbed the neighboring South for the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul.
This closed the second period in Olympic history after significant boycotts at all Summer Games from 1976 to 1984.
Some African countries stayed away from Montreal in 1976 because New Zealand would be there shortly after its iconic rugby team toured South Africa.
The United States led the largest boycott in 1980. More than 60 teams refused to go to Moscow after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. IOC President Thomas Bach was among the West German athletes unable to go, denying him the chance to defend his team fencing title.
Repayment four years later led to the rejection of the Los Angeles Olympics by the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies.
The era of boycotts almost fatally damaged the Olympic brand and was burned into the memory of Bach who presided over an era of continued commercial success.
Most famously, the IOC banned South Africa from competing in any Olympic Games from 1964 to 1988 due to its system of apartheid racial discrimination laws.
Critics of the IOC’s current stance on Russia point to the case of South Africa. The IOC’s counterpoint is that South Africa was under UN sanctions, while Russia is currently not. Russia is a member of the UN Security Council and can veto proposed resolutions.
North Korea was banned from the Beijing Winter Games held a year ago as punishment for not sending a team to the Tokyo Summer Games in July 2021. North Korea claimed it was protecting athletes from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In September 2021, when issuing the ban, Bach said that participation in the Olympic Games can “show the world what it could look like if everyone followed the same rules, if everyone lived together in peace without any discrimination.”
Afghanistan could be banned from Paris next year for denying women and girls the right to play sports. The charter says that “every individual must have the opportunity to practice sports, without discrimination.”
The World Anti-Doping Agency has called on the IOC to issue a full ban on Russia less than a month before the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The hectic build-up to the Olympics has seen WADA-appointed investigator Richard McLaren detailing a Russian state-backed doping scheme at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
After the IOC pledged to explore legal options, it instead asked the governing bodies of individual Olympic sports to decide within days how and which Russian athletes could qualify for Rio. A flurry of appeals was sent to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
A similar scenario of legal uncertainty could play out before the Russians and Belarusians compete in Paris, sports law academic Antoine Duval warned on Friday.
“It would be very political and very ad hoc, and with different kinds of approaches to this issue,” Duval told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
The IOC’s proposed option for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete in Paris as neutral athletes without their flag, anthem or national team name has precedent.
Thus, individual Yugoslavs, but not teams, were able to compete as independent athletes at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics during the civil war in the Balkans. At that time, UN sanctions were in force.
In 2016, Kuwait competed as independent athletes under the Olympic flag over the relatively trivial issue of a government-backed sports law that was unacceptable to the IOC.
The fallout from Russia’s doping scandal has meant that teams at the past three Olympics, starting in 2018, have competed under supposedly neutral names — Olympic Athlete from Russia and ROC (for the Russian Olympic Committee) — without a flag or anthem.
Dressed in the distinctly Russian colors of red, white and blue, however, it was a compromise that many found unsatisfactory. All Russians competing in Paris will likely be dressed in truly neutral colors.
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