— Published 9 January 2023

“Ukraine’s neighbours may well resort to boycott”

The deadline is still a long way off, but the threat is serious. With less than 600 days to go before the opening of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games (D-564 on Monday 9 January), the idea of a boycott of the event has been suggested by an international sports leader and former member of the IOC Executive Board.

Norwegian Gerhard Heiberg (pictured above) explained at the end of last week that the Olympic body’s consideration of a possible return of Russian athletes to international competitions, including the qualifiers for the next Summer Games, is still very premature. If successful, it could lead to some of Ukraine’s allied countries opting out of the Paris 2024 Games.

The plan to devise acceptable conditions for inclusion of Russian athletes is far too early,” says Gerhard Heiberg. “Ukraine’s allies indeed all of Europe, is wholly justified in their concern. More information is needed on Putin and his military leaders, still formidably aggressive.

The Norwegian leader continued, referring to the proposal of the Association of Asian Olympic Committees (OCA) to act as a pilot for a return of Russian athletes: “It is much too soon for leaders of the Olympic Council of Asia to be investigating possible loopholes for Russian integration. Ukraine’s neighbours may well resort to boycott. The West should lie low for the moment and not venture in this false direction.”

Gerhard Heiberg is not the first Olympic leader to come along. A former industrialist, he was an IOC member for almost a quarter of a century, between 1994 and 2017. He served eight years on the Executive Board (2003-2011), and chaired the powerful Marketing Commission between 2001 and 2014. He was also President and CEO of the Organising Committee of the Lillehammer Winter Games in 1994.

Having reached the age limit – he admits to being 83 years old – the Norwegian joined the ranks of honorary members of the Olympic body in 2017. But his voice is still sometimes heard.

A boycott. In the Olympic world, the word brings back painful memories. Montreal 1976, Moscow 1980, Los Angeles 1984. One of the darkest periods in the history of the Games. Thomas Bach, a fencer at the time, experienced some of these episodes personally. He has not forgotten.

Is the threat serious? At this stage, probably not. For the moment, the IOC is content to consider the possible return of Russian and Belarusian athletes. It has not made any decisions. No timetable has been established. And the OCA’s proposal to open a first door, made last December, has not yet been put into practice.

Nevertheless, Gerhard Heiberg’s statements are not anecdotal. By speaking publicly, the Norwegian leader is warning the IOC that the lifting of the sanctions imposed since February could create a front of refusal around Ukraine, ready to brandish the weapon of boycott.

Last October, the General Assembly of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) in Seoul had already shown the divisions of the Olympic movement on the Russian question. Before the opening of the assembly, eleven National Olympic Committees wrote a joint letter to the President of the body, Fiji’s Robin Mitchell, to express their disagreement with the presence of Russian and Belarusian officials. Norway was among them, as were Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Iceland, Sweden and New Zealand.

On the first day of the General Assembly, the President of the Danish Olympic Committee, Hans Natorp, asked to speak at the end of Thomas Bach’s introductory speech. The Scandinavian leader explained: “We have the presence of the Russian and Belarusian National Olympic Committees here, but we are without the presence of Ukraine. It should be the other way around. We need unity. This is based on the principles of the UN and the Olympic Charter.”

Visibly annoyed, Thomas Bach replied very curtly. “We are not lumping everyone together because of the actions of their government. Please keep in mind that you are a member of this Olympic movement.

The next day, the Danish delegation left the General Assembly hall during the presentation of ANOC’s Culture and Education programme by Stanislav Pozdniakov, the President of the Russian Olympic Committee.

Denmark yesterday, Norway today. The resistance is Scandinavian. But it could spread.

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)