One year after the invasion of Ukraine began, Russia’s reintegration into the world of sports threatens to create the biggest rift in the Olympic movement since the Cold War.
Russia remains excluded from many international sporting events, but that could soon change. Next year’s Paris Olympics are fast approaching and qualifying events are under way. The International Olympic Committee is working to bring athletes from Russia and ally Belarus back into competition, but not everyone agrees.
If Russian athletes are to return to competition, the sports world must resolve two key issues that became clear in the days after the invasion: How can Russian athletes return without alienating Ukrainians? And what can be done about the Russians who support the war?
As the first battles raged, the Ukrainian fencing team refused to compete against Russia at a tournament in Egypt, holding up a sign reading: “Stop Russia! Stop the war! Save Ukraine! Save Europe!”
A year later, one of the biggest obstacles to a Russian return to sports is Ukraine’s insistence it could boycott rather than risk handing its enemy a propaganda success or further traumatizing Ukrainian athletes affected by the war. Other European countries have also spoken of boycotting the Olympics if Russians are allowed to participate.
The last major Olympic boycotts came four decades ago when the United States and more than 60 allies skipped the 1980 Moscow Games. The Soviet Union and its allies retaliated by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
The actions of specific athletes are a separate issue. Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak taped a “Z” symbol to his chest, mimicking a marking used on the country’s military vehicles, while standing on the podium next to the Ukrainian winner at an event in Qatar last March. He was banned for a year.
The IOC now says it will not support the return of any Russian athlete who has “acted against the peace mission of the IOC by actively supporting the war in Ukraine,” but hasn’t defined what that means in practice.
Sports organizations took swift action last year in response to the Russian invasion. A day after tanks rolled into Ukraine, Russia was stripped of the right to host the Champions League final in men’s soccer and the Russian Grand Prix in Formula One. After four days, the IOC recommended excluding Russian and Belarusian athletes from events “to protect the integrity of global sports competitions and for the safety of all the participants.”
The Russian men’s national soccer team was in the World Cup playoffs at the time, hoping to qualify for last year’s tournament in Qatar, but Poland refused to play them. Russia was then excluded from the competition — four years after hosting the 2018 tournament and reaching the quarterfinals.
As the Paris Olympics come into view, the IOC has shifted its emphasis to what it says is its duty to avoid discriminating against anyone based on nationality, and to create a path for Russians and Belarusians to compete as neutral athletes without national symbols. Safety concerns might be avoided, the IOC says, if Russia and Belarus were to compete in events in Asia, including Olympic qualifiers at the Asian Games in China.
The IOC points to tennis, where the men’s and women’s professional tours have allowed individual Russians and Belarusians to compete without national symbols. Belarusian player Aryna Sabalenka won the Australian Open last month. Even in tennis, though, Russia and Belarus are excluded from national team competitions like the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup, and they were also barred from playing in last year’s Wimbledon tournament.
Russia and its athletes have been at risk of being banned at each Olympics since the steroid-tainted 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Previously, it was because of Russian state-backed doping and then the country’s attempt to cover up evidence of that scandal.
Ukraine is fiercely opposed to allowing Russians back into world sports, and especially next year’s Olympics. Ukraine says more than 220 of its athletes have been killed in the war, and hundreds of sports facilities lie in ruins. It points to precedents like the exclusion of Germany and Japan from the 1948 Olympics following World War II.
“If, God forbid, the Olympic principles are destroyed and Russian athletes are allowed to participate in any competitions or the Olympic Games, it’s just a matter of time before the terrorist state forces them to play along with the war propaganda,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told a summit of sports ministers and officials from more than 30 countries this month.
That summit produced a joint declaration full of skepticism for how the IOC’s proposed neutral process could work, with particular concern about whether the many Russian athletes with ties to the military could compete. The IOC said Tuesday it found those questions “constructive” but that the nations did not address its concerns about possible discrimination.
The clock is ticking for the IOC to find a solution for Russian and Belarusian athletes to have the opportunity to qualify for the Olympics. Qualifying has already begun in many sports and will start soon in others.
While Russians have been largely excluded over the last year, Ukraine’s athletes have had some notable successes on the world stage. Oleksandr Usyk, who took up arms in defense of Ukraine shortly after the invasion, returned to boxing and defended his heavyweight title against Anthony Joshua in August. High jumper Yaroslava Mahuchikh won a world championship silver medal in Oregon and Maryna Bekh-Romanchuk won the European triple jump title.
The Ukrainain men’s soccer league resumed in August — with some games interrupted by air-raid warnings — and Shakhtar Donetsk held its own in the group stage of the Champions League with a win over German club Leipzig and a draw against Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid.
In a statement Wednesday marking the one-year anniversary of the invasion, the IOC didn’t mention its efforts to reintegrate Russia and Belarus, but said the Olympics could promote “peaceful competition” between athletes from the likes of North and South Korea, or Israel and Palestine.
“Peace-building efforts need dialogue,” the IOC said. “A competition with athletes who respect the Olympic Charter can serve as a catalyst for dialogue, which is always a first step to achieving peace.”