Lord Coe on collision course with IOC over Russia ruling for Paris Olympics

Thomas Bach - International Olympic Committee ready to welcome Russian and Belarusian athletes to Paris Games - Reuters/Denis Balibouse
Thomas Bach - International Olympic Committee ready to welcome Russian and Belarusian athletes to Paris Games - Reuters/Denis Balibouse

Russia and Belarus athletes have been handed a potential route back to elite competition by the International Olympic Committe just five days after its blue-riband sport issued an outright ban.

In a controversial move that puts the IOC at odds with World Athletics, as well as the UK Government, president Thomas Bach also claimed that recent months have proved that the “participation of athletes with Russian and Belarusian passports in international competitions works”.

Bach was speaking following a board meeting of the IOC after which recommendations were published for those Olympic sports who now want to include Russian and Belarusian athletes in international competition.

Although no decision has been made on next summer’s Paris Games – and individual sports can decide their own stance – Bach emphasised “human rights considerations” and the advice of United Nations advisors.

Quoting the words of a UN rapporteur, Bach said: “The issue is what happens with individuals. This is not a grey area of international law. It is something that binds our states and all individuals. The blanket prohibition of Russian and Belarusian athletes and artists cannot continue. It is a flagrant violation of human rights. Anyone has the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their passport.”

The IOC’s latest intervention comes less than a week after the World Athletics Council ruled that athletes from Russian and Belarus would be banned from its international events, including Olympic qualifying. Although that could still change subject to criteria that will be defined by a new working group, World Athletics president Sebastian Coe stressed that it was not a short-term measure.

“We determine eligibility and, for our world championship events, for the foreseeable future, the exclusion remains,” said Coe.

Asked if Russia will need to leave Ukraine in order for its athletes to return to international competition, Coe replied: “It remains my instinct. But I think that will also fall firmly within the remit of the working group that will want to look at that process.”

Back struck a very different tone in Lausanne on Tuesday, despite outlining sanctions that do still outlaw international sporting events in Russia and Belarus as well displaying their national flags or symbols at any competitions.

The IOC recommended that Russian and Belarusian athletes should compete as neutral individuals, rather than teams, but have urged a ban on personnel who are contracted to the military or security agencies as well as any individual who has actively supported the war in Ukraine.

Russia president Vladimir Putin was famously among the first to congratulate Bach when he was elected IOC president in 2013 and Bach bristled when asked if their relationship could have influenced deliberations. “Mr Putin was also the first person for whom the IOC withdrew an Olympic order,” he said. Bach also stressed that there had been no communication with the Russia president over the past 12 months.

“We have been accused by the Russian side of being agents of the US – we have been accused by the Ukrainian side as being promoters of the war,” said Bach, arguing that the IOC had struck a fair solution and that it was still for individual sports to decide. “We are not recommending the participation – [we are] issuing strict conditions for international federations,” he said, adding that decisions should be based “on sporting merits, not on political grounds or because of their passports.”

Bach denied that the IOC was “kicking” the Paris decision down the road but stressed how Russian and Belarusian athletes are already competing in some sports as individuals.

“We see this almost every day in a number of sports, most prominently in tennis but also in cycling,” he said.

“In none of these competition security incidents have been happening. Should what is possible in these sports not be possible in swimming, table tennis, wrestling or any sport? What is the difference?”

Bach also noted that there were “70 other ongoing armed conflicts and wars” globally and said that the national Olympic committees in affected areas were not requesting any exclusion of athletes.

Ukraine has threatened to boycott the Paris Games if a ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes is not upheld. Its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, told a summit of sports ministers last month that 228 Ukrainian athletes and coaches had already died since the Russian invasion last year. The Ukrainian Ministry of Sport also said that 350 sports facilities have been destroyed, and 40,000 athletes have been forced abroad. The UK Government also remains firmly against reinstating Russian and Belarusian athletes.

“Now is not the time for the International Olympic Committee to plot a route back into competition for Russian and Belarusian athletes funded and selected by their states,” said the Culture secretary Lucy Frazer. “The situation in Ukraine has worsened since the IOC made its original decision to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from the Olympic Games as Putin continues to wage his barbaric, illegal war. The IOC needs to agree that the ban must continue.”