— Published 19 October 2022

In Seoul, the Olympic movement united in division

Numbers can be deceiving. In Seoul, the General Assembly of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) opened early this morning, Wednesday 19 October, to a generously filled hall. According to the official tally, 186 Olympic Committees are represented in the South Korean capital, out of the 206 national member organisations of the movement. The rest are following the proceedings online, from a distance.

In these post-pandemic times, the result is still very respectable. But two national committees animated the debates of this first morning of the General Assembly. One for its presence, Russia. The other for its absence, Ukraine.

As announced several weeks ago, the Russians made the trip to Seoul. They were invited. They seized the opportunity. A delegation from the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), led by its president, Stanislav Pozdnyakov (photo above), was present at ANOC’s General Assembly. Its delegates wear their accreditation around their necks. The only thing that sets them apart from the rest of the Olympic movement’s officials is the absence of the national flag on their table in the conference room.

The Russians are there. And their presence alone is enough to crack the impression of unity that the Olympic movement would like to display from the South Korean capital.

Before the opening of the General Assembly, eleven National Olympic Committees wrote a joint letter to the ANOC President, Fiji’s Robin Mitchell, to express their disagreement with the presence of Russian and Belarusian officials in Seoul. They include Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and New Zealand.

On Wednesday morning, Thomas Bach did not shy away from the subject. He even made it the opening, and probably the most listened-to part, of his long speech to the ANOC General Assembly.

The IOC President justified the presence of the Russian and Belarusian National Committees. “War has not been declared by the Russians, the Russian organisations and the Russian athletes,” suggested the IOC President. “We should not sanction them. We must sanction those responsible for this war.”

Thomas Bach insisted that the sanctions recommended by the IOC at the start of the conflict in Ukraine, and the measures taken by the Olympic movement, must not be lifted. But he called on the National Olympic Committees to wisely stay on this course of action, without seeking to deviate from it. “Don’t do less, because doing less means you are dividing the Olympic movement,” he said. “Don’t do more, because doing more means you are dividing the Olympic movement.”

The message is clear: the IOC is calling for unity. “Choose the path of unity and peace,” said Thomas Bach. “Each of you is first and foremost a member of our global Olympic movement. Keep this in mind and never forget that you, your autonomy, your athletes, could be the next to be sanctioned for political reasons.”

Determined to justify the presence of Russian and Belarusian officials, Thomas Bach referred to this week’s meeting of the UN General Assembly. “Right now, as we are gathered here, the UN General Assembly is meeting with the full participation of all its member states, whether their countries are in conflict or not. We will not be more political than the politicians,” he insisted.

Convincing? Not sure. When Thomas Bach’s speech was over, Denmark asked for the floor. “We have the presence of the Russian and Belarusian National Olympic Committees here, but we are without the presence of Ukraine,” suggested Danish Olympic Committee President Hans Natorp very calmly. It should be the other way around. We need unity. This is based on the principles of the UN and the Olympic Charter.

Thomas Bach’s very dry answer: “Unity also means that we are in a democratic organisation, where we respect the clear majority. We do not lump everyone together because of the actions of their government. Please keep in mind that you are a member of this Olympic movement.”

The debate could have gone on and on. And, with it, the Olympic movement’s divisions over the Russian issue. But Robin Mitchell ruthlessly cut it short. With several other signatories of the anti-Russian letter asking to speak in turn, the ANOC President warned: “The discussion that has just ended will probably be the last one on politics”.