Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge says the International Paralympic Committee is “wrong” to allow Russian athletes to compete under a neutral banner.
The minister said the IPC’s decision to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete under the Paralympic flag sends the wrong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin about his invasion of Ukraine.
St-Onge called on the IPC to immediately reverse its decision, and said she will keep the pressure up alongside allied countries.
“I believe they took the wrong decision … and I am calling on the IPC to reconsider that decision as fast as possible,” she said in an interview.
The sports minister said she is in close contact with allied countries that also want Russia banned from the Paralympics. The U.K. is among those to have condemned the IPC’s decision to allow Russian athletes to compete.
“Allowing this country to participate in international sports competition is definitely sending the wrong message to Mr. Putin that this is business as usual,” she said. “It is not the case.”
She said the IPC is out of step with other international sports bodies that have already outlawed Russian clubs and athletes from competing in protest.
The International Ice Hockey Federation has banned Russia and Belarus from taking part in its events following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Belarus is a close ally of the Putin regime and has supported the attack.
On Monday, FIFA — international soccer’s governing body — indefinitely suspended Russia’s men’s and women’s teams, making it unlikely Russia will play in the World Cup playoffs later this month.
UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, has also removed Russia clubs from competitions.
The sports minister accused Putin of violating the Olympic truce.
She said the “strength of Russian aggression on Ukraine” meant Canada needed to look at every possible way to isolate Putin, including through sport.
St-Onge says Putin “is a strong supporter of sports” and Russia’s isolation by sporting bodies will bite.
“I believe that the message that the international sports federation has sent is clear that sports community doesn’t approve of his action and the decision he took to invade Ukraine,” she said. “I believe that the sports community is united in this statement and it is really unfortunate that the IPC didn’t take the right decision.”
St-Onge said allowing Russians and Belarusians to take part as neutral athletes in the Paralympics has put Canadian Paralympians in an “unfair” position by forcing them to decide for themselves whether to compete against them.
The sports minister said she was “extremely saddened and disappointed” for Canada’s Paralympians for being put in this “incredibly hard situation.” She said the government was there to support them in any decision they may take.
“They definitely don’t deserve this. They have been training so hard for the past few years. These Games should have been a moment for everyone to unite and rejoice and right now it is not possible to be in that state of mind, so my heart goes out to them,” she said.
Prof. David Black, an expert on politics and sport at Dalhousie University, said Putin has used sport, including Russia’s hosting of the last World Cup, to burnish his image in Russia and abroad. Excluding Russia would isolate Putin and undermine his status.
“The point about sports sanctions is they create a sense of social isolation and ostracism,” he said.
The Canadian Paralympic Committee said in a statement it would have liked Russia and Belarus expelled immediately from the Paralympic Winter Games, but due to legal constraints this isn’t possible.
The committee said it is waiting for a special general assembly to be called as soon as possible to allow IPC members to review the membership status of the two countries.