— Published 23 March 2023

Thomas Bach, politically neutral but not apolitical

Coincidence of the calendar? Perhaps not. In the space of a few hours, on Wednesday 22 March, Thomas Bach and the IOC opened the door a little more to a return of Russian and Belarusian athletes to international competitions. And let it be understood that things could soon become more concrete.

First indicator: Thomas Bach. The president of the body was visiting his own country, in the Ruhr region, where he was invited to speak at a political forum (photo above). Without any surprise, he spoke about the conflict in Ukraine and its consequences for the Olympic movement. Just as expected, he defended the position of the IOC and its willingness “to explore a way” allowing a return of Russian and Belarusian athletes.

If politics decides who can participate in a competition, then sport and athletes become tools of politics,” suggested Thomas Bach in his speech at the Philharmonie in Essen. It is then impossible for sport to exercise its unifying power. We must be politically neutral, but not apolitical. We know well that politics rules the world. We know that our decisions have political implications and we must include that in our thinking. But we must not make the mistake of elevating ourselves to the status of arbiters of political disputes, for we would be crushed by those political powers.”

The IOC President continued: “We are in a dilemma. We feel, suffer and understand the Ukrainian people and athletes. On the other hand, we have, as a global organization to human rights and the Olympic Charter. These two texts do not allow for the total isolation of people based solely on their passport.”

So far, nothing very new. Thomas Bach remains in line with a position mentioned for the first time publicly by the IOC during the Olympic Summit, organized last December in Lausanne.

But, surprise, the German leader ventured for the first time to specify some conditions that could be imposed on Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate, under cover of neutrality, in international competitions. He explained that the IOC could recommend excluding athletes who have displayed the letter “Z“, used on Russian military vehicles, which has become since last year a symbol of support for the war in Ukraine.

Our principles say clearly and distinctly that any active support for the war, and that includes wearing this Z’, that includes posts and much else besides,” detailed Thomas Bach. Anyone who supports the war in this way cannot participate in the competitions.”

According to the television channel WDR, nearly 200 pro-Ukraine demonstrators, including Ukrainian refugees in Germany, had gathered outside the Essen concert hall on Wednesday to demand the total exclusion of Russia from the Olympic Games.

Second indication of a decision to come on the Russian and Belarusian question: the announcement by the press service of the IOC, Wednesday, March 22, of the next meeting of the executive commission. It is scheduled from March 28 to 30 in Lausanne. The Russian file appears in good place in the agenda. It could even open the debates.

“On the first day, the IOC EB will discuss the conclusions and review the feedback from a series of consultation calls held with IOC Members, National Olympic Committees (NOCs), International Federations (IFs) and athletes’ representatives on the topic of solidarity with Ukraine, the sanctions against Russia and Belarus, and the status of athletes from these countries”, says a statement from the body.

Thomas Bach himself confirmed it on the sidelines of his speech in Essen: the next week will be decisive. Asked about the fate of the many Russian athletes who are members of the army or linked in one way or another to military organizations, the leader replied: “Wait until the middle of next week. I am sure we will come up with appropriate guidelines then.”