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Strong views at a PACE hearing on whether athletes from Russia and Belarus should be excluded from the Paris Olympics

Hearing on sport

A PACE parliamentary hearing on excluding Russian and Belarusian athletes from taking part in the 2024 Paris Olympics and Paralympics brought together key players from all sides of the debate, and heard a range of strong views on the topic.

The event, which took place during the Assembly’s plenary session in Strasbourg, heard from a number of ministers, top officials from sports bodies, athletes, human rights experts and parliamentarians, as well as representatives of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which is due to decide on the question soon.

Ukraine’s Deputy Minister for Youth and Sports Andriy Chesnokov, speaking online from Kyiv, said his country held the unchanging opinion that as long as Russia’s aggression continued, representatives of the aggressor states “must not perform on the international sports arena in any status”. Many Russian athletes continued to support Vladimir Putin’s policies, he said, and establishing an athlete’s “neutrality” was almost an impossible task. No human rights instruments laid down an athlete’s unconditional right to participate, he contended.

In a pre-recorded video message, French Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra said it was important to define “neutrality” and noted there were “tangible and basic” open issues: “What is the position the IOC intends to take when it comes to athletes who are funded and financed by the Russian or Belarusian state? Or those who are sponsored or benefiting from financial support from entities having links with Russia or Belarus?”

UK State Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport Lucy Frazer, also speaking in a pre-recorded video message, said Russia had shown “nothing but contempt for Olympic values” and the two countries did not deserve to see their athletes on starting blocks or podiums as representatives of their countries. Individual Russian or Belarusian athletes should not be punished, but only those representing the state: “There is a fundamental difference.” But current IOC recommendations “do not go far enough and leave unanswered questions” on state funding, links to the military and the potential for loopholes, she believed.

The UN’s Special Rapporteur in the field of Cultural Rights Alexandra Xanthaki, in a pre-recorded video message, reiterated her view that a blanket ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes, based on their nationality alone, “violates the principles of universality and non-discrimination” and undermines peace. “Such a ban confuses states’ behaviours with individuals’ behaviour,” she said. “Punishing individuals solely based on their nationality for the heinous acts of leaders, over which they have no control, undermines this distinction.”

The President of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF), Francesco Ricci Bitti, explained that Russian and Belarusian athletes had originally been excluded from competition partly because of security concerns, but things had changed. He defended sport’s right to make its own choices without government interference. There were around 70 other conflicts in the world, he pointed out, but in none of them were the parties demanding exclusion of the other. With the IOC, his body was close to proposing criteria to determine “neutrality” and would seek to find a middle view.

Namibian sport shooter and Olympian Gaby Ahrens, Chair of the Athletes’ Commission of the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa (ANOCA), said that governments deciding which athletes can take part in which competition would mean the end of world sport as we know it today. Africa was sadly familiar with war, she said, yet: “On behalf of athletes from Africa, and our Athletes Commission, I would like to reiterate: athletes should never pay the price of a conflict their government is involved in.”

Armenian Olympic wrestler Arsen Julfalakyan, Chair of the Athletes’ Commission of United World Wrestling (UWW), said that – despite the recent conflict in his region, which had touched him personally – “I have never used my position to call for a total ban on Azerbaijani athletes, and I’m not going to do that here either”. The definition of “neutral athlete” was the key concept that should be discussed – but it should be a question for sport, and not politicians. “Sports people just want to do what they are good at.”

Finally, Estonian Olympic discus thrower Gerd Kanter, Chairperson of the Athletes’ Commission of the European Olympic Committee (EOC), said many athletes were against the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes. There were security risks when Ukrainian and Russian athletes met at the Olympics, and he asked: why should sport be excepted when there were sanctions in so many other areas? Russian and Belarusian athletes themselves could face prison at home for declaring against the war.

The meeting also heard from Natallia Pinchuk, the wife of jailed Belarusian human rights activist and Havel Prize winner Ales Bialiatski, as well as a number of members of the Assembly.

Denisa Elena Neagu (Romania, ALDE) is preparing a report on the topic for the PACE Culture Committee, which should be debated in due course by the Assembly.