KYIV (Reuters) -Ukraine hopes to secure widespread international support for banning Russian and Belarusian athletes from the Paris Olympics in 2024 due to Moscow's invasion, the sports minister said on Tuesday.
Vadym Huttsait, 51, a former Olympic fencing champion, told Reuters the idea of allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as neutrals was unacceptable.
"It is impossible for us at a time when the full-scale war is going on, when our athletes, our soldiers are defending our homeland," he said in his Kyiv office, beside a wall with portraits of athletes killed in the war.
Last week the International Olympic Committee said it was open to including Russian and Belarusian athletes as neutrals at the Games and opened a door to them competing in qualifiers, prompting an international campaign by Kyiv to keep them out.
Moscow said on Tuesday it would welcome any IOC moves to allow its athletes to compete in the Olympics. But hours later the IOC said it was standing by sanctions imposed against the countries over Russia's invasion.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a video address on Tuesday that "Russian politisation of sport would invariably mean justification of terror".
At least 220 Ukrainian athletes and coaches have died in the war, said Huttsait, who won an Olympic fencing team gold in 1992 for the so-called Unified Team, which comprised 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics. He also coached Ukraine's winning team at the 2008 Games.
"Ukraine will unite with many countries ... and it (Russians competing) will not be allowed," he added, saying 40 nations had given Ukrainian athletes housing and training assistance abroad during the war.
There has been little public support yet from other nations for an outright ban on Russians at Paris.
'LIVES MORE IMPORTANT THAN MEDALS'
The IOC's initial recommendation to ban Russians and Belarusians has been applied by many sports federations.
But last week, it backed a proposal by the Olympic Council of Asia to allow them to compete in Asia, which could potentially include Olympic qualifying events.
Should that happen, Ukraine's sporting authorities and athletes will face a "very difficult decision" whether to boycott Paris, Huttsait said.
"When we lose so many people, so many athletes, the lives of Ukrainians are more important to us than any medal at international competitions," he said.
Ukrainian officials have turned on the IOC in recent days for promoting "violence, mass murders, destruction" with the idea of giving Russia a "platform to promote genocide."
The IOC has called that defamatory and said such words do not promote constructive discussion.
Zelenskiy said "only the free world acting together can protect sport from those sports bureaucrats who for some reason are ready to close their eyes to reality."
On Tuesday, former boxing champion Wladimir Klitschko called on IOC head Thomas Bach not to betray the Olympic spirit and become an "accomplice in this abominable war".
Moscow is trying to turn the page on years of doping scandals after its teams were forced to compete without their flag or anthem at the Olympics and major international events.
(Additional reporting by David Ljunggren and Ron Popeski; Editing by Tom Balmforth, Andrew Cawthorne, Mark Heinrich and Jonathan Oatis)