Russians and Belarusians who qualify in their sport for the Paris 2024 Olympics can take part as neutrals without flags, emblems or anthems at the event next year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said on Friday.
Russians and Belarusians had initially been banned from competing internationally following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, for which Belarus has been used as a staging ground.
In March, however, the IOC issued a first set of recommendations for international sports federations to allow Russian and Belarusian competitors to return and they have since done so in most events.
Athletics, the Games’ biggest sport, is unlikely to open the door for them to return to competition, however, after banning them following the invasion and sticking to it on Friday.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba condemned what he said was a “shameful” IOC decision while Russia’s Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin called the conditions set by the IOC for Russian athletes’ participation at the Olympics “discriminatory.”
“The Executive Board (EB) of the IOC has decided that Individual Neutral Athletes (AINs) who have qualified through the existing qualification systems of the International Federations (IFs) on the field of play will be declared eligible to compete at the Olympic Games Paris 2024,” the Olympic body said in a statement.
“Individual Neutral Athletes are athletes with a Russian or Belarusian passport.”
The neutral athletes will compete only in individual sports and no teams for the two countries will be allowed. Athletes who actively support the war in Ukraine are not eligible, nor are those contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military.
The IOC also said no Russian or Belarusian government or state official would be invited to or accredited for Paris 2024.
But athletes, it added, should not be punished for the actions of their governments.
While Paris Games organisers ‘took note’ of the IOC decision, there were angry responses from Ukraine and Russia.
“The IOC essentially gave Russia the green light to weaponize the Olympics,” Ukraine’s foreign minister Kuleba said on X.
“Because the Kremlin will use every Russian and Belarusian athlete as a weapon in its propaganda warfare. I urge all partners to strongly condemn this shameful decision, which undermines Olympic principles,” Kuleba added.
Ukraine’s sports minister Matviy Bidniy said on Telegram: “The irresponsible decision by the IOC Executive Board enables Russian and Belarusian athletes to hide behind fake neutrality.
“We explained to our international partners and the Olympic Committee that Russian athletes have the same passports as occupiers who kill Ukrainians. And that means they bear the same responsibility for the deaths of Ukrainians. In a time of war, they cannot hide behind the white flag of “neutrality”.
“Regarding Ukraine’s participation in the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, we will make a decision later, after consulting with the Ukrainian sports community and the country’s top political leadership,” Bidniy added.
Russia’s Sports Minister Matytsin said the IOC’s approach was “unacceptable”.
“Participation in the Olympics is an athlete’s dream. But the conditions are discriminatory and go against the principles of sports,” he was quoted by TASS news agency.
“By doing so, they harm the Olympic Games themselves, and not Russian sports. The approach is absolutely unacceptable.”
Out of 4,600 athletes globally who have so far qualified for the Games, which open on July 26, eight are Russians and three hold Belarusian passports. More than 60 Ukrainians have qualified.
ATHLETICS MAINTAINS BAN
Athletics’ suspension of Russia for state-sponsored doping was lifted this year but, after the invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow called a “special military operation”, all Russians and Belarusians were banned from the sport.
In response to the IOC decision on Friday, World Athletics (WA) said: “All athletes, support personnel and officials from Russia and Belarus are excluded from all World Athletics Series events, and from hosting any International or European athletics events.
“We will continue to monitor the situation but unless there is a major change in circumstances between now and the Olympic Games, this exclusion will apply to Paris 2024.
“It is the IOC’s remit to decide which countries are invited to participate at the Olympic Games, but it is the responsibility of the IFs (international federations) to decide which athletes within their sport are eligible to compete.”
At August’s World Championships in Budapest, WA president Sebastian Coe said it would have been “inconceivable” for Russians and Belarusians to have competed, saying that the ban was for “reasons of integrity”.