— Published 19 June 2023

Russians don’t want refugee status

With just over 400 days to go until the opening of the Paris 2024 Games (D – 403), the question of Russian participation in the next Olympic competitions remains unanswered. But the dialogue between Moscow and Lausanne is becoming increasingly tense.

The latest episode: a report that the IOC might accept a Russian delegation at the Paris 2024 Games under a status comparable, if not identical, to that of the Olympic refugee team. Present for the first time at the Rio 2016 Games, then confirmed five years later at Tokyo 2020, it marches under the Olympic flag. In the event of victory, the Olympic anthem would be played during the medal ceremony.

The idea is not official. It has neither been confirmed nor denied by the IOC. At this stage, it is more of a rumor. But that’s all it took to provoke a chain reaction from the Russian sports movement, right up to the highest levels of government.

Oleg Matytsin, Russia’s Minister of Sport, did not hold back his words when commenting on the news at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF). “First of all, these initiatives require a legal assessment in terms of how they correspond to the Olympic Charter and human rights, he explained to the TASS agency. Of course, if it is about the concept that you are talking about, that would mean that the international community is pursuing a policy aimed at destroying our national sports system and this is something that we cannot agree to.”

The same hostility was expressed by the former president of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), Alexander Zhukov, who was also present at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. Now honorary president of the ROC, but also first vice-president of the Duma – Russia’s lower house of parliament – he too rejected such a scenario out of hand.

This is simply unacceptable, hammered Alexander Zhukov. They cannot destroy Russian sports, it is simply impossible. Such demands and attempts can only be motivated by political pressure.

Interviewed by the R-Sport media, the president of the Russian Wrestling Federation, Mikhail Mamiashvili, drove the point home without trying to pull any punches. “If they want to see us at the 2024 Olympics as a refugee team, we’ll have to go to Paris in tanks,” he suggested. I have no further comment on the subject.

The idea of associating Russian athletes with refugee status is not new. It was raised last February by one of Ukraine’s strongest allies on the issue, Polish Sports Minister Kamil Bortniczuk. At the time, however, it was only a question of allowing “dissidents” from Russian sport to take part in the Games.

The IOC could find a compromise by creating a refugee team, which could include people of Russian and Belarusian nationality who are dissidents,” he had said at a press conference.

Not very credible? Only time will tell. But the rumors in the corridors, whether fuelled by Lausanne or not, accentuate the trend: Moscow will not accept participation in the Paris 2024 Games under just any conditions. With just over a year to go, the Russians are standing firm. They could give up, rather than have to bow to the demands of the Olympic movement. A solution that would satisfy almost everyone.