— Published 24 February 2023

“On the Russian issue, the IOC is trying to gain time”

The anniversary is not a happy one. This Friday, February 24, 2023 marks one year exactly since the beginning of the Russian offensive in Ukraine. Twelve months, to the day, of a conflict whose continuation and possible outcome still seem difficult to envisage.

This “absurd war“, to use the expression of the IOC, the Olympic movement has approached it without looking long for its words and actions. Four days after the first strikes, the authority with the rings “recommended” to the international federations to exclude the Russian and Belarusian athletes from their competitions. Very quickly, too, a solidarity effort was made to help the Ukrainian sports community.

But over time, the firmness of the early days gave way to a less clear-cut position. Last December, the IOC announced its willingness to explore a way to allow athletes from the two warring countries to return to the international scene. With, in line of sight, their participation under conditions of neutrality in the Games of Paris 2024.

Since then, the Olympic movement has fallen in line with the IOC. But the opposition to a return of Russian and Belarusian athletes, led by Ukraine, has raised the tone, especially among Western countries.

To try to better understand the background, but also the prospects, of the explosive Russian file, FrancsJeux interviewed an expert on Olympic issues, the Swiss Jean-Loup Chappelet, honorary professor at the University of Lausanne.

FrancsJeux: How to explain the will of the IOC to reintegrate the Russian and Belarusian athletes on the international scene, in spite of the opposition not only of Ukraine, but also of a great number of Western countries?

Jean-Loup Chappelet: The first reason is legal. Let us not forget that Thomas Bach is a lawyer. It is written in the Olympic Charter that athletes cannot be discriminated against, including because of their nationality. The same resolution appears in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is a very strong message. The IOC is obliged to respect its own Charter. If it does not, the Russians could go to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. They would most certainly win their case. But the legal issue does not explain everything. The IOC is also faced with a moral problem on the issue of Russian and Belarusian athletes. A “dilemma”, to use its expression. Between the legal and the moral, it is trying to find a solution.

How can he get out of it?

The end of the war would obviously be the best scenario. The question would no longer be asked in the same terms. In the meantime, the IOC is stalling. It is waiting to see what will happen with this war. If it does not stop in time before the Paris 2024 Games, it will have to face the moral and legal questions. But there are still more than 500 days before Paris 2024. The situation can evolve. Above all, the Russian and Belarussian athletes will have to qualify. Asia has proposed to host them this year at the Asian Games in China. With a certain logic, because a large part of Russia is located on the Asian side. But not all international federations will agree. The archery federation, for example, does not want Russian archers to participate in the next Asian Games.

According to you, will the Russians be present at the Games of Paris 2024?

I do not believe so. It is already a given that they will not be present in team sports, because they cannot enter the qualification process. In the individual disciplines, I do not see them going to the Games of Paris 2024, even if they managed to qualify. The IOC will make the conditions of participation very difficult. In the end, Russia will not accept them. Its authorities have already stated that they refuse the conditions mentioned by the IOC.

The IOC has specified that only Russian and Belarusian athletes who did not support the war in Ukraine could return to the international scene under the guise of neutrality. Is such a condition realistic?

All this does not seem very clear. That’s why a coalition of countries asked this week for clarification on the notion of neutrality mentioned by the IOC. It would be up to the international federations to select the Russian and Belarusian athletes eligible to participate, a task that looks very difficult, except in the case where an athlete has clearly expressed his support for the military offensive in Ukraine. For the others, nobody really knows their position regarding the conflict. But it should be noted that the concept of neutrality is only since 2018 in the Olympic Charter. It was not mentioned anywhere in previous versions.

The IOC recommended last year to the international federations, only four days after the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, to suspend the Russian and Belarusian athletes. But it did not exclude its Russian members. How can such hypocrisy be justified?

The IOC justifies its position by the fact that its members do not represent their country. On the contrary, they are the representatives of the IOC in their own country. The situation is the same in the international federations. But it is a given that the representatives of the Russian and Belarusian governments will not be able to attend the Olympic Games. This was already the case at the Games of PyeongChang 2018 and Tokyo 2020. Certainly, Vladimir Putin was present last year at the Beijing Games, but he was invited by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, not by the IOC.

The Olympic movement shows a consensus, since the end of last year, to support the position of the IOC on the Russian and Belarusian question. Doesn’t this unity risk cracking in the coming months?

It could. But I think the international federations will continue to support the IOC. They are afraid of setting a precedent by continuing to suspend athletes on the pretext that their country is at the origin of a war. There are many conflicts in the world. If athletes from warring countries have to be banned, it can make it difficult to organize competitions and sometimes distort results in disciplines where the absent athletes are very successful. In addition, many international federations are financially dependent on IOC grants. Two-thirds of them derive more than half of their income from IOC subsidies.

Is the threat of a boycott of the Paris 2024 Games, brandished by Ukraine and several Baltic and Scandinavian countries, serious?

It is, but as a last resort. The situation is very different from the time of the Games of Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984. Today, the athletes need to participate, for their professional career. The sport is their job. Ukraine would boycott if the Russians were present. A political boycott. In some other countries, one would perhaps also see a concordance between words and acts. Elsewhere, things look more complicated. But I don’t think it will come to that. There is still time. The dialogue will still take time. And above all, the Russians must succeed in qualifying.