KYIV, Ukraine—With next year’s Paris Olympics on the horizon and Russia’s invasion looking more like a prolonged conflict, Ukraine’s sports minister on Friday renewed a threat to boycott the games if Russia and Belarus are allowed to compete and said Kyiv would lobby other nations to join.
Such a move could lead to the biggest rift in the Olympic movement since the Cold War era.
No nation has declared it will boycott the 2024 Summer Games. But Ukraine won support from Poland, the Baltic nations and Denmark, who pushed back against an International Olympic Committee (IOC) plan to allow delegations from Russia and ally Belarus to compete in Paris as “neutral athletes,” without flags or anthems.
“We cannot compromise on the admission of Russian and Belarusian athletes,” said Ukrainian Sports Minister Vadym Huttsait, who also heads its national Olympic committee, citing attacks on his country, the deaths of its athletes and the destruction of its sports facilities.
A meeting of his committee did not commit to a boycott but approved plans to try to persuade global sports officials in the next two months—including discussion of a possible boycott.
Huttsait added: “As a last option, but I note that this is my personal opinion, if we do not succeed, then we will have to boycott the Olympic Games.”
Paris will be the final Olympics under outgoing IOC head Thomas Bach, who is looking to his legacy after a tenure marked by disputes over Russia’s status—first over widespread doping scandals and now over the war in Ukraine.
Bach’s views were shaped when he was an Olympic gold medalist in fencing and his country, West Germany, took part in the US-led boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He has condemned that decision ever since.
Russia has cautiously welcomed the IOC’s decision to give it a path to the Olympics but demands it drop a condition that would leave out those athletes deemed to be “actively supporting the war in Ukraine.”
Russian Olympic Committee head Stanislav Pozdnyakov, who was a teammate of Ukraine’s Huttsait at the 1992 Olympics, called that aspect discriminatory. The IOC, which previously recommended excluding Russia and Belarus from world sports on safety grounds, now argues it cannot discriminate against them purely based on citizenship.
The leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania urged the IOC to ban Russia and said a boycott was a possibility.
“I think that our efforts should be on convincing our other friends and allies that the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes is just wrong,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said. “So boycotting is the next step. I think people will understand why this is necessary.”
The IOC said in a statement that “this threat of a boycott only leads to further escalation of the situation, not only in sport, but also in the wider context. It is regretful that politicians are misusing athletes and sport as tools to achieve their political objectives.”
It added bluntly: “Why punish athletes from your country for the Russian government starting the war?”
Poland’s sports minister Kamil Bortniczuk said as many as 40 countries could jointly condemn Russian and Belarusian participation at Paris in a statement next week but that it could stop short of a boycott threat. He told state news agency PAP that the IOC was being “naive” and should reflect on its position.
Denmark wants a ban on Russian athletes “from all international sports as long as their attacks on Ukraine continue,” said Danish Culture Minister Jakob Engel-Schmidt.
“We must not waver in relation to Russia. The government’s line is clear. Russia must be banned,” he said. “This also applies to Russian athletes who participate under a neutral flag. It is completely incomprehensible that there are apparently doubts about the line in the IOC.”
Asked by The Associated Press about the boycott threats and the IOC plan, Paris 2024 organizing committee head Tony Estanguet would not comment “about political decisions.”
“My job is to make sure that all athletes who want to participate will be offered the best conditions in terms of security, to offer them the chance to live their dream,” he said in Marseille.
Ukraine boycotted some sporting events last year rather than compete against Russians.
Huttsait said a boycott would be very tough, saying it was “very important for us that our flag is at the Olympic Games; it is very important for us that our athletes are on the podium. So that we show that our Ukraine was, is, and will be.”
Marta Fedina, 21, an Olympic bronze medalist in artistic swimming, said in Kyiv she was “ready for a boycott.”
“How will I explain to our defenders if I am even present on the same sports ground with these people,” she said, referring to Russian athletes. She noted her swimming pool in Kharkiv, where she was living when Moscow invaded, was ruined by the war.
Speakers at the Ukrainian Olympic Committee’s assembly meeting raised concerns about Moscow using Paris for propaganda and noted the close ties between some athletes and the Russian military.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday if athletes from the two countries compete, “it should be absolutely clear that they are not representing the Russian or Belarusian states.” Los Angeles will host the 2028 Olympics.
If the IOC’s proposal takes effect, Paris would be the fourth straight Olympics where Russian athletes have competed without the national flag or anthem. The Russian teams at the Winter Olympics in 2018 and 2022 and the Summer Olympics in 2021 were all caught up in the fallout from a series of doping cases.
The last time multiple countries boycotted an Olympics was in 1988, when North Korea and others refused to attend the Summer Games in South Korea. The North Korean team was a no-show at the Tokyo Games in 2021, citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. The IOC barred it from the following Winter Games in Beijing as a result, saying teams had a duty to attend every Olympics.
Although the IOC set the tone of the debate by publishing advice on finding a way to help Russia and Belarus compete, decisions must be made for the governing bodies of individual sports that organize events on the 32-sport Paris program.
Those organizations, many based in the IOC’s home of Lausanne, Switzerland, run their own qualifying and Olympic competitions and decide on eligibility criteria for athletes and teams.
The International Cycling Union signed on to the IOC’s plan ahead of its Olympic qualifying events to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as “neutrals.”
Track and field’s World Athletics and soccer’s FIFA were among most sports that excluded Russian athletes and teams within days of the start of the war. Tennis and cycling let many Russians and Belarusians continue competing as neutrals. Other governing bodies are more closely aligned with the IOC or traditionally have strong commercial and political ties to Russia.
One key meeting could be March 3 in Lausanne of the umbrella group of Summer Games sports, known as ASOIF. It is chaired by Francesco Ricci Bitti, a former IOC member when he led the International Tennis Federation, and includes World Athletics president Sebastian Coe.
ASOIF declined comment Friday, though noted this week “the importance of respecting the specificity of each federation and their particular qualification process” for Paris.
Image credits: AP