Olympic Leader Bach Explains Policy on Helping Russians Compete to Ukrainians at World Athlete Event

AP Photo/Alex Babenko
A woman reacts during the All-National minute of silence in commemoration of Ukrainian soldiers killed in the country’s war against Russia on Independence square in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023.

GENEVA (AP) — Comparing the plight of Ukrainian athletes with those in another war-ravaged country Yemen, IOC president Thomas Bach explained to Olympic athlete groups Monday its policy on helping Russians compete with neutral status before the 2024 Paris Games.

The International Olympic Committee invited a global selection of athlete representatives to a two-day meeting while sports bodies work to shape their neutrality rules and assess individual Russians who want to return to international events and qualify for Paris.

Ukrainian judoka Georgii Zantaraia told Bach his country did not understand why neutral status is being offered to Russian athletes and suggested any who disapproved of the war could compete in the Olympic refugee team.

“We all can understand the human suffering, the human feeling of the Ukrainian athletes,” Bach told Zantaraia. “We understand the difficulties they have like your fellow athletes in Yemen.”

Bach suggested the IOC took an unprecedented strong position on imposing limits on Russians in international sport when, he claimed, 28 wars are ongoing in the world.

“Some athletes and officials of other (Olympic teams) are accusing us of double standards,” Bach told the athletes. “They say – ‘And what about our war? What did you do then? Where have you been? Where are you?'”

The reason given for unprecedented action was that Russia started its military invasion four days after the 2022 Beijing Olympics closed during the United Nations-backed Olympic Truce period.

Zantaraia was asked to question Bach minutes after his counterpart representing Yemen, boxer Mohammed Al-Qarnas, was called to speak and told how athletes in his country had felt forgotten. War in Yemen since 2014 has killed more than 150,000 people and created a humanitarian disaster.

Debate over reintegrating Russian athletes who have not supported the war — despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy calling for an outright ban — aired for a second straight day in the IOC’s Swiss home city Lausanne.

“We should protect our fellow athletes who have nothing to do with this,” Bach said Monday.

On Sunday, Ukrainian runner Anna Ryzhykova said Russian athletes had some responsibility because there were “zero cases” of speaking or acting against their government.

“They are involved, all of the athletes are involved in the war, because they keep silent. They don’t do anything to stop this,” insisted Ryzhykova, an Olympic finalist two years ago in Tokyo in the 400 meters hurdles.

“Every night Russia attacks us by missiles or drones. I live there. I don’t know if I will wake up next morning,” Ryzhykova said.

After she finished speaking, IOC Athletes’ Commission member Sarah Walker came to hug Ryzhykova and sit with her.

“We hear you. I can speak for a lot of people in this room. It makes us sad. It’s a horrible situation,” Walker said. “On the other hand, we also feel sad for other athletes that are in a horrible situation as well.”

“One of the most amazing things about the Olympics is how it brings everyone in the world together. And the inspiration it gives for peace and unity,” said Walker, who took silver for New Zealand in BMX cycling at the 2012 London Olympics.

Also in the room Sunday was Olympic refugee team head Tegla Loroupe, the two-time New York marathon winner who urged athletes from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine to unite and show an example to the world.

“My sister,” Loroupe said addressing Ryzhykova, “I’m praying God gives you that courage that, tomorrow, you can be another leader.”

After Loroupe cited Nelson Mandela’s belief in the power of sport to unite, International Paralympic Committee delegate Vlada Kravchenko reminded that South Africa was banned from the Olympics while he was in jail during the Apartheid era.

“That is something to learn from the past,” Kravchenko said.