Exclusive: World Athletics president invites Ukrainian president to the Olympics in surprise visit to Kyiv

World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said he invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the Olympics as his personal guest during a surprise visit to Kyiv on Friday.

“I did use the opportunity to make him absolutely understand that, if he does make it to Paris, then he has an open invitation to watch the number one, the Olympic sport,” meaning athletics, Coe told CNN’s Amanda Davies, who had exclusive TV access to Coe throughout his trip to Ukraine.

A two-time Olympic champion, Coe is also a member of the International Olympic Committee. But he’s at odds with the IOC when it comes to their stance on Russian athletes.

Following Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine – supported by Belarus – in February 2022, World Athletics is the only Olympic sports federation to have banned all Russian and Belarussian athletes from elite competition. The IOC, on the other hand, has allowed dozens of athletes from those two countries to compete as neutrals at this month’s Paris Games.

Zelensky has said “there is no such thing as neutrality when a war like this is going on,” and that “any neutral flag of Russian athletes is stained with blood.”

Ukraine’s road to the Olympics has been riddled with obstacles. According to the country’s Sports Ministry, more than 500 sports facilities have been destroyed in Russian attacks. Hundreds of athletes have been killed, and many others forced to train abroad.

In the meeting with the Ukrainian president, World Athletics committed to keep providing financial support for the country’s athletes. They also discussed other initiatives, including the creation of a program that would support 18- to 22-year-old competitors and their coaches, so they can continue to compete in athletics at an international level.

Coe also stopped by the Ukrainian Athletics Championships in Lviv, the event that determined which athletes will compete in the Olympics. “You are an absolute inspiration,” he told a group of athletes who gathered to meet him.

Before leaving the country, a visibly emotional Coe recalled arriving in Kyiv in the early morning alongside a medical train with civilian casualties from the front line.

“And leaving Kyiv last night, and witnessing the night train coming in, in exactly the same way and just looking at parents and brothers, sisters … It was a sobering, sobering moment,” he told CNN.

As to whether Zelensky accepted his invitation to go to the Games, Coe said he “wasn’t sure whether his diary was going to allow him to do that. But I think he was warming to the idea as the conversation developed.”

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at