— Published 16 August 2023

“Our athletes need to be at the Olympics”

The news should reassure the IOC, the Paris 2024 OCOG and, more broadly, the Olympic movement: Ukraine seems to have put its threat of a boycott of the next Summer Games in France behind it for good.

The Minister for Sport, Vadym Guttsait (pictured above), who is also President of the fencing federation and the National Olympic Committee, confirmed to several international media that Ukrainian athletes will be going to the Olympic Games next year, provided that Russia is not represented as a nation, an option that the IOC has not considered for some time.

Our athletes need to be at the Olympics,” explained the former fencer. “Our flag will be at the opening ceremony, at the competitions, our athletes will represent our state so that everyone in the world will see that Ukraine is, was and will be.”

With less than a year to go before the event, Ukraine is slowly sliding towards an increasingly flexible position. After threatening to boycott the Paris 2024 Games in the event of a Russian presence, its political authorities had imposed an obligation on Ukrainian athletes not to take part in international competitions involving Russians or Belarusians, even under neutral status.

Last month, Kiev reviewed its strategy, issuing a decree authorising its athletes to take part in events on the international calendar in which neutral athletes carrying Russian or Belarusian passports were entered. A Ukrainian delegation was thus able to take part in the world fencing championships in Milan at the end of July.

Today, Vadym Guttsait is pushing the envelope even further, assuring us that the Ukrainian delegation will be present at the Paris 2024 Games. But he warns that the best option for the Olympic movement would still be a total exclusion of Russian athletes from Olympic events.

If Russian athletes are at the Olympics, then Russian propagandists will try to turn this celebration of sport into a celebration of propaganda, just as Hitler once did,” he suggested to AFP. “I believe that the IOC will not allow the aggressors to do this. The ball is now in the court of the IOC and international sports federations,” he said. I believe that they will continue to stand on the right side of history and prevent the aggressors from participating in the Games.”

The Ukrainian minister even envisages a scenario, far from unrealistic, in which Russia ends up giving up on sending a neutral delegation to the Paris 2024 Games. “I also do not exclude that the Russians will make a ‘goodwill gesture’ and say that they will not go.”, he continued.

As a reminder, the IOC officially sent out invitations to the National Olympic Committees on 26 July, just one year before the opening of the next Games. The body kept three in its drawers, addressed to Russia, Belarus and Guatemala.

Pending a more definitive decision from the IOC, unlikely before the end of the year, Ukraine is preparing. It is doing so without looking too much towards Moscow and Minsk. “We do not pay attention to these athletes, because for us it is not clear at all who these athletes are, because (they are) under a neutral flag,” said Vadym Guttsait.

But, insists the Minister for Sport, it is preparing for the Olympics with the greatest of difficulties. “Our athletes cannot prepare in peace,” he says. “There is not one of them who has not had a partner, a friend, a relative or a member of their team killed in the conflict. More than 300 Ukrainian athletes and coaches have been killed in this war. Stadiums can be rebuilt, infrastructure can be restored, but lives cannot be returned.