Olympics-Athletes risk becoming "Russian propaganda" after IOC decision on Paris Games, Ukrainian sportsman says

FILE PHOTO: A view through a fence shows the Russian Olympic Committee headquarters in Moscow, Russia, October 13, 2023. The Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) was banned by the International Olympic Committee for recognizing regional organizations from four territories annexed from Ukraine, according to the IOC. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/File Photo

LA PLAGNE, France (Reuters) - Olympic competitors risk being used as "Russian propaganda" after the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) decision to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as neutrals at the Paris Games, Ukrainian skeleton racer Vladyslav Heraskevych said on Friday.

"I don't really understand why the IOC are acting like they are blind or something like that," Heraskevych told Reuters in a video call.

"I am fully okay if they compete but I am not okay if they use their achievements and their participation in Russian propaganda. Because if they use it, then we have more victims in this war.

"It's basically they are saying that they're okay if international sport will be used in Russian propaganda. That's what I feel now."

Heraskevych used his own moment in the spotlight at last year's Beijing Winter Olympics to hold up a paper sign reading "No War in Ukraine" to a television camera in between runs at the skeleton event.

Russian and Belarusian athletes were initially banned from competing internationally following Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year.

However, the IOC announced on Friday that athletes who qualified in their sport would be able to participate as neutrals without flags, emblems or anthems in next year's Olympics.

"Let's pretend that I'm a German or Austrian athlete and I'm competing and I won a medal and Russian guy (was) second," Heraskevych said. "IOC make a photo and then Russian propaganda use this photo in some advertising. I don't want to be used in Russian propaganda. IOC should guarantee me this because that's how it works now.

"If we give this opportunity to use international sport as Russian propaganda... then more people (are) going on the front line. And more innocent people (are) dying from both sides.

"(The) IOC should understand and take responsibility for that. It's very important to not give up and to push IOC and to call them to see some common sense in this decision and to change it," he added.

The IOC's decision also drew an angry response from Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who condemned it as "shameful".

"The IOC essentially gave Russia the green light to weaponize the Olympics because the Kremlin will use every Russian and Belarusian athlete as a weapon in its propaganda warfare," Kuleba said on X.

In a statement, the IOC said that neutral athletes would compete only in individual sports and no teams from the two countries would be allowed. It said those who actively supported the war in Ukraine were not eligible, nor were those contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military.

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.

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

(Writing by Angelica Medina in Mexico City; editing by Clare Fallon)

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