Much ado about nothing. Announced en masse for the 2023 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, Russian and Belarusian athletes can unpack their bags. They will not be attending the continental event, scheduled for September 23 to October 8 in the Chinese city in Zhejiang province.
This is due to a decision by the IOC, announced by its spokesperson. The Olympic body, long in favor of the presence of athletes from both countries at the Asian Games, where quotas for the Paris Games will be distributed by the handful, has finally reversed its position.
“The idea of athletes with Russian and Belarusian passports taking part in the 2023 Asian Games was explored, as stated at the December 2022 Olympic Summit, but was not feasible for technical reasons“, explained the IOC spokesman.
Which ones? A mystery. But the IOC’s statement, which definitively closes the door on a Russian and Belarusian presence in Hangzhou at the end of the month, is reminiscent of the less than optimistic comments made by Stanislav Pozdnyakov at the beginning of July. On his Telegram account, the President of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) commented on the decision of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), taken by vote at its General Assembly in Bangkok, to invite up to 500 athletes from both countries to the 2023 Asian Games: “The Russian Olympic Committee has not yet received any invitation to take part in the Asian Games, and without this, it is absurd to consider and discuss hypothetical options. There’s little time left before these competitions kick off, so questions arise as to how well our athletes are prepared to achieve the expected results. Not to mention all the organizational, financial, logistical and other requirements for such a trip.”
Clearly, Stanislav Pozdnyakov was right. The Russian leader, Olympic champion in the individual sabre event at the Atlanta Games in 1996, didn’t want to believe the OCA’s promises. He had no doubt guessed that the IOC would not let the Asian body go ahead with the project, despite its seemingly favourable rhetoric.
As a reminder, the idea of inviting Russian and Belarusian athletes to the 2023 Asian Games in Hangzhou was first raised in December 2022 at the Olympic Summit in Lausanne. At the time, the IOC opened a breach by explaining that it was studying the possibility of Russian and Belarusian athletes returning, subject to conditions, with a view to the Paris 2024 Games. The OCA jumped on the bandwagon, announcing its willingness to act as a pilot for the Asian Games.
Since then, the idea has gained ground. Last July, the continental body gave it a more precise outline at its general assembly, specifying that it had set a quota of 500 athletes for the two countries.
“We are proposing to allow individual Russian and Belarusian athletes – and I do mean individual athletes – to compete under a neutral banner,” said OCA CEO Husain al-Musallam from Kuwait, who is also President of World Aquatics. We have set a quota of 500 athletes in twelve individual sports for both countries.”
With three weeks to go before the opening of the event, the project has been consigned to the dustbin of history. The Russians and Belarusians will not see the Asian Games, any more than they saw the European Games, held earlier this summer in Poland. They miss out on another chance to win quotas, or even direct qualification, for the Paris 2024 Games.
The “technical reasons” invoked by the IOC are questionable. Too vague. But they come as no surprise. Thomas Bach has repeated it several times in recent months: the final decision on the possible presence of neutral individual athletes carrying Russian or Belarusian passports at the Paris 2024 Games will not be taken before the IOC session in Mumbai in mid-October. The question may not even be decided until the end of the year.
The IOC wants to take its time. And probably even wait as long as possible, in order to make a Russian presence in France next year technically impossible. With such a strategy, opening the door wide to the Asian Games would have solved nothing, but on the contrary multiplied the problems.