Olympics-Russians, Belarusians to participate at Paris Olympics as neutrals - IOC


FILE PHOTO: A view shows the Olympic Rings in front of the Olympic House, headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), during the executive board meeting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), in Lausanne, Switzerland, March 28, 2023. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

BERLIN (Reuters) - Russians and Belarusians who qualify in their sport for the Paris 2024 Olympics can take part as neutrals without flags, emblems or anthems at the event next year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said on Friday.

Russians and Belarusians had initially been banned from competing internationally following Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year, for which Belarus has been used as a staging ground.

In March, however, the IOC issued a first set of recommendations for international sports federations to allow Russian and Belarusian competitors to return and they have since done so in most events.

Athletics, the Games' biggest sport, is unlikely to open the door for them to return to competition, however, after banning them following the invasion and sticking to it on Friday.

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba condemned what he said was a "shameful" IOC decision while Russia's Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin called the conditions set by the IOC for Russian athletes' participation at the Olympics "discriminatory."

"The Executive Board (EB) of the IOC has decided that Individual Neutral Athletes (AINs) who have qualified through the existing qualification systems of the International Federations (IFs) on the field of play will be declared eligible to compete at the Olympic Games Paris 2024," the Olympic body said in a statement.

"Individual Neutral Athletes are athletes with a Russian or Belarusian passport."

The neutral athletes will only compete in individual sports and no teams for the two countries will be allowed. Athletes who actively support the war in Ukraine are not eligible, nor are those contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military.

The IOC also said no Russian or Belarusian government or state official would be invited to or accredited for Paris 2024.

But athletes, it added, should not be punished for the actions of their governments.

While Paris Games organisers 'took note' of the IOC decision, it drew angry responses from Ukraine and Russia.

"The IOC essentially gave Russia the green light to weaponize the Olympics," Ukraine's foreign minister Kuleba said on X.

"Because the Kremlin will use every Russian and Belarusian athlete as a weapon in its propaganda warfare. I urge all partners to strongly condemn this shameful decision, which undermines Olympic principles," Kuleba added.

Ukraine's acting sports minister Matviy Bidnyy said his country's participation at the Paris Games would be decided after talks with the political and sports leadership.

"Regarding Ukraine's participation in the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, we will make a decision later, after consulting with the Ukrainian sports community and the country's top political leadership," Bidnyy said.

Russia's Sports Minister Matytsin said the IOC's approach was "unacceptable".

"Participation in the Olympics is an athlete’s dream. But the conditions are discriminatory and go against the principles of sports," he was quoted by TASS news agency.

"By doing so, they harm the Olympic Games themselves, and not Russian sports. The approach is absolutely unacceptable."

Out of 4,600 athletes globally who have qualified for the Games so far, eight are Russians and three hold Belarusian passports. More than 60 Ukrainians have qualified.

ATHLETICS MAINTAINS BAN

Athletics’ suspension of Russia for state-sponsored doping was lifted this year but, after the invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow called a "special military operation", all Russians and Belarusians were banned from the sport.

In response to the IOC decision on Friday, World Athletics (WA) said: "All athletes, support personnel and officials from Russia and Belarus are excluded from all World Athletics Series events, and from hosting any International or European athletics events.

"We will continue to monitor the situation, but unless there is a major change in circumstances between now and the Olympic Games, this exclusion will apply to Paris 2024.

"It is the IOC’s remit to decide which countries are invited to participate at the Olympic Games, but it is the responsibility of the IFs (international federations) to decide which athletes within their sport are eligible to compete."

At August’s World Championships in Budapest, WA president Sebastian Coe said it would have been "inconceivable" for Russians and Belarusians to have competed, saying that the ban was for "reasons of integrity".

(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; additional reporting by Julien Pretot, Mitch Phillips, Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber and Yuliia Dysa; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Toby Davis and Christian Radnedge)

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