PARIS (AFP) – Olympics chief Thomas Bach faces “the toughest decision of his presidency” as he weighs whether Russian and Belarus athletes should be allowed to compete in the 2024 Games, a senior former International Olympic Committee (IOC) executive has told AFP.
The signs coming from bodies such as the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) in the past fortnight suggest athletes from Russia and Belarus should be permitted to try and qualify for the Games in Paris.
The IOC has agreed to “explore” a proposal allowing athletes from those countries to compete in international events in Asia.
Olympic authorities had banned them following the beginning of the war in Ukraine and those federations who have allowed athletes from those countries to take part have insisted that they do not display national emblems.
The argument given was that the events’ integrity would be damaged by the athletes competing.
However, the IOC said this month that both the OCA and some International Federations (IFs) “on the Asian continent” believe “the reasons for the protective measures no longer exist”.
The softening of their attitude enraged Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy, who called Bach. Zelensky claimed 184 Ukrainian athletes have died since the war began and called for the “total isolation” of Russia and Belarus.
The IOC’s former marketing chief Michael Payne – who was credited with overhauling the movement’s brand and finances – said Bach faces a conundrum.
“It is probably the toughest decision that Bach is facing in his presidency,” Payne told AFP. “He and the IOC are caught between a rock and a hard place.”
Another former IOC marketing executive Terrence Burns, an American who has since played a role in five successful Olympic bid campaigns, said one problem was that the war had gone on for much longer than expected.
Burns said the change in the IOC’s stance was not a “retreat or softening”.
“The IOC’s very reason for existence is to use sport as a unifying platform – perhaps the only one – and to keep and hold the world together,” he told AFP.
“I see it as a pragmatic evolution of direction in an almost no-win situation. Principles and values matter, no matter how unpopular they be when applied.”
Bach had also spoken about the participation of Russian and Belarus athletes being politicised by some governments and called for a return “to sporting merits”.