— Published 13 March 2023

African athletes unanimous in favour of Russia’s return

The door opens. Not yet wide, but wide enough to get a foot in. Two days after the decision of the International Fencing Federation (FIE) to reinstate Russian and Belarusian athletes in international competitions, another voice from the Olympic movement was heard to express its support for the return of the two belligerent countries.

Meeting in a forum on Saturday 11 and Sunday 12 March in Algiers, at the initiative of the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa (ANOCA), the representatives of African athletes expressed their support for a lifting of the suspension of Russian and Belarusian athletes.

The ANOCA forum brought together in the Algerian capital more than a hundred athletes from the continent, representing fifty national athletes’ commissions of national Olympic committees. At the end of the discussions, there was unanimous support for the IOC’s position on the Russian and Belarusian issue.

Surprising? Not really. In Algiers, the African athletes only followed the resolution adopted by the ANOCA Executive Board on 3 March. Like their continental body, they are in good order behind the IOC in its desire to “explore a way” to allow the Russian and Belarusian delegations to participate in the Paris 2024 Games.

At the end of its forum, ANOCA issued a succinct statement, where it explained that the athletes, “in their discussions, reaffirmed that athletes should never pay the price of conflict, whatever and wherever it may be.” The document continues: “Politics must not put pressure on sport to move away from its core values of solidarity and unity.

In itself, the position of the African athletes is not very unexpected. It would have been surprising to see them expressing their defiance of their continental body, especially on the home turf of ANOCA president Mustapha Berraf of Algeria. The unanimity, on the other hand, is somewhat surprising, especially in the African Olympic movement where debates are always very animated and consensus is often difficult to find.

What should we conclude from this? Two things. The first was predictable: the Olympic movement does not deviate from the line set by the IOC on the Russian and Belarusian question. Asia was the first to show this, at the end of last year, when its Olympic Council, the OCA, went so far as to offer to act as a pilot by welcoming athletes from the two countries in its continental competitions, including the next Asian Games. Africa is following suit. The rest of the procession should follow, with more or less conviction, but without daring to stray from the road.

Second lesson: the athletes are also showing solidarity with the return of the Russian and Belarusian athletes. Few of them have yet openly expressed an opinion on the matter. The Africans are the first to adopt a position that is both clear-cut and unanimous. They will certainly not be the last.

In addition to the often repeated refrain of the imperative need to separate sport and politics, African athletes insist on one principle: sportsmen and women “should never pay the price of conflict”. They know only too well that the situation of Russian and Belarusian athletes, sidelined from the sporting scene for more than a year, could one day become theirs, if their political leaders get it into their heads to point their guns at a neighbouring country. In Africa, the risk exists, probably even more than in some other parts of the world.