by Miceál O’Hurley
LAUSANNE — The Executive Committee Meetings of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete in Olympic competitions during their 3-day meeting at Olympic House. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 the IOC banned both Russian and Belarus athletes from competitions. However, in January the IOC signaled an easing of sanctions much to the outrage of the international community by providing a pathway for the athletes to qualify for Olympic competition through Asian qualifying rounds. The athletes would be required to participate as ‘neutral’ athletes.
This evening’s IOC’s vote deferred a decision as to whether the athletes will be able to compete in the 2024 Paris Games. Kyiv sighed with relief that the IOC stopped short of deciding on the Paris Games, “The decision on the admission of Russians and Belarusians to the Olympics in 2024 has been postponed,” said Ukraine’s Sports Minister Vadym Gutzeit via Facebook. Gutzeit added, “We will also make joint efforts so that not a single Z-patriot gets into international sports arenas,” he added. Russian combatants mark their uniforms and equipment with a prominent ‘Z’ symbol. Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak shocked the world by wearing a ‘Z’ on his gymnastic uniform in Qatar in March 2022 following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine which earned him a suspension from international competition for 1-year but praise and recognition within Russia.
Despite scheduling 3-days of meetings the IOC Executive Committee prioritized its consideration of the recommendations of United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur for Cultural Rights Alexandra Xanthaki that Russian soldiers, even those who have engaged in active combat in the illegal invasion of Ukraine, be allowed to compete in the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. According to Xanthaki’s recommendations only those Russian soldiers not proven to have directly committed war crimes or engaged in propaganda for war should be barred from international sport.
Xanthaki’s recommendation prioritises the supposed right of Russian combatant-athletes to compete in international competition as superior to those of the 231-Ukrainian athletes killed by Russian forces. These athletes included junior gymnastics competitor and 11-year old Olympic aspirant Katya Dyachenko whose house was destroyed by Russian artillery in Mariupol. The attack on the civilian housing area instantly killed Katya and her father. Despite her mother and brother being evacuated to hospital for emergency medical care they were later killed when a sustained Russian strike destroyed the hospital leaving no survivors in the family.
Russia has always understood the power of sport and politics. It should not be lost on the IOC that Russia’s conduct of the war has purposefully targeted Ukrainian sporting facilities for destruction. Despite serving no tactical value Russian forces have destroyed 343 Ukrainian sporting facilities across the width-and-breadth of the country. Targeting sporting and cultural facilities has been a hallmark of the senseless brutality of Russian forces who carry-out the political goals of the Russian Federation, namely the destruction of Ukrainian society. Surely, such wanton rapine pillage is not in keeping with Olympic ideas.
Xanthaki argues that only those proven to have directly committed war crimes should be barred from Olympic competition and in so doing fails to consider that common soldiers, including Russian combatant-athletes, are critical players in the Russian military apparatus that has killed tens-of-thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers defending their homeland from an illegal invasion. Russian combatant-athletes have also been critical to the kidnapping and transportation of Ukrainian children which has earned President Vladimir Putin an international arrest warrant in the Hague. Surely, if German courts have found that clerks and typists were instrumental in the systematic processing of Jews in concentration camps that led to millions of deaths it is not unreasonable to think that the Russian combatant-athletes have also proved invaluable to the plethora of war crimes and crimes against humanity that are unveiled in Ukraine daily.
Beyond the profound moral bankruptcy of holding only those so-far found guilty of war crimes to account with Olympic competition bans Xanthaki and the IOC have fundamentally failed to understand how war crimes and crimes against humanity are researched, verified and prosecuted. Ongoing wars create a near impossible situation in detecting and collecting evidence of war crimes, especially where territories are occupied, witnesses continue to live in fear or may have fled the country for their safety. Often, war crimes and crimes against humanity are not discovered until the cessation of combat and even then investigations and prosecutions prove challenging. It is for these reasons that the burden of proof for Russians and Belarusians to have the IOC impose a personal ban from Olympic competition is absurd. No international war crimes trials have yet been held nor are expected to commence anytime soon. Xanthaki and the IOC have cleverly set the bar so high for expulsion from competition that it would allow Russian combatant-athletes to participate in Olympic competition long before any crimes they may have committed are even detected let alone tried in a court of law competent to judge such crimes.
Why then is the IOC in such a rush? The assertion that only those athletes guilty of war crimes should be barred from competition as the ‘gold standard’ presents a troubling burden-of-proof for victims. What would happen if the IOC received a credible accusation that a Russian combatant-athlete had committed a war crime? Is it up to the IOC to set the standard of proof for participation in war crimes or conviction? Will the IOC empower itself to make determinations of guilt or innocence on issues of international criminal law? The IOC has struggled to appropriately handle doping and other athlete misconduct—are they now to make determinations about the guilt or innocence of individual Russian combatant-athletes—a role for which the IOC is neither constituted nor capable of performing.
If Russia is guilty of waging illegal warfare upon Ukraine—which is the consensus of the international community—then by extension those Russian combatant-athletes who aiding Russia in the commission of this illegal warfare should not benefit from the fame, credibility and economic opportunities that attach to Olympic athletes. The IOC should not presume to determine where the ‘bright line’ lies between individual and corporate responsibility for the conduct of war. Continuing the outright ban imposed in 2022 is the only reasonable and practical alternative while Russia continues to wage an unjust and brutal war marked by ongoing crimes upon Ukraine.
Beyond the Ukrainian athletes and civilians that have been killed by Russian forces—whose voices cannot be heard by the IOC—living athletes are protesting the IOC’s conduct. Earlier today, more than 300-fencers sent the IOC and fencing’s global federation governing body a strongly worded protest about the dangers of re-admitting Russian athletes to international competition, “With complete disregard for athletes’ voices, you have permitted both Russia and Belarus back into FIE competitions, as well as a suspected tournament hosted on Russian soil,” the athlete’s letter asserted. Said the letter, “This is an apparent break of the IOC’s position… and once again exposes Russian interests outweighing the voice and rights of athletes, especially those from Ukraine”. The letter from fencing athletes included 318 signatures—286 from athletes actively competing in fencing competition and the remaining signatures from retired world-class athletes. The letter of protest included signatures from across the globe including Japan, Brazil, Chile, the United States, Canada, Mexico and Europe. The IOC ignored it.
According to statements by IOC President Thomas Bach last week he believes Russian athletes should be re-admitted to Olympic competition. In an attempt to quell vociferous criticism of the IOC’s plans to re-admit Russian and Belarusian athletes to international competition, Bach called on politicians to “keep politics and sports apart”. According to Bach’s lengthy speech in Essen, Germany, “If politics decides who can take part in a competition, then sport and athletes become tools of politics.”
Bach’s position not only over-trivialises the inherent politics incorporated into modern Olympic sport by both the IOC and participating nations but smacks of hypocrisy on a grand scale. Incontrovertibly, Olympic competition is a nationalistic festival replete with athletes marching and competing under the flags and anthems of their nations. The 1920 Games were stripped from Budapest because it had been the capital of the Astro-Hungarian Empire that fought on Germany’s side of World War I and thus the games were handed to Antwerp by a predominantly French influenced IOC. Notably, Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, and Türkiye were pointedly not invited to the Games as they were successor states of the Central Powers which were defeated in World War I.
Adolf Hitler famously used the 1936 Berlin Games as both a showcase for National Socialism and German superiority and in a demonstration of overt racism left the stadium when American athlete Jesse Owens won the 100-meter dash thereby avoiding having to shake the hand of a black man. Following World War II, both Germany and Japan were banished from the 1948 London Olympics. The 1956 Melbourne Games saw two distinct political protests surrounding the Suez Crisis and Soviet Tanks having crushed an uprising in Hungary. The indelible photograph of two American athletes in the 1968 Mexico City Games raising their fists in the ‘Black Power’ salute on the winners’ podium to protest the inhumane treatments of blacks all while the games saw Mexicans publicly mourning the mass shooting of protestors who had objected to the Mexican Government diverting funding from social programmes to build Olympic facilities.
The 1972 Munich Games saw the horrific murder of Israeli athletes as a political protest by ‘Black September’ militants who attempted to negotiate the release of Palestinian prisoners. African countries boycotted the 1976 Montreal Games, the United States and 64-other nations boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Sochi Games were mal-appropriated by Vladimir Putin to overtly promote Russian political ideology. During the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games the IOC engaged in politics of refugee status and rights by engineering rules for a ‘non-nation’ contingent of International Refugee athletes to compete. Few can forget the 2020 Beijing Games’ spokesperson, Yan Jiarong’s statement before the international press, “What I want to say is that there is only one China in the world. Taiwan is an indivisible part of China”. The modern Olympic Games have been rampant with politics and for Bach to deny that is reprehensible.
More to the point, Bach and the IOC Executive Committee fail to have learned a lesson from the salient history of the 1936 Berlin Games. The IOC and United States Olympic Committee (USOC) were co-opted as Nazi propaganda agents when in 1934 USOC President Avery Brundage denied that Nazi Germany was persecuting Jewish Athletes and Jews. The IOC echoed that conclusion. Brundage announced that Jewish athletes were being treated fairly and then launched a pro-German PR campaign to ensure American athletes would compete in Berlin thus opening the door for other nations to announce they would also participate in what became known as Hitler’s Berlin Games. Despite acknowledging that ‘non-Aryans’ were denied training and competition opportunities under the Nazis, then IOC President Henri de Baillet-Latour went on to assure nations they would “receive a cordial welcome without the risk of experiencing anything which might offend their principles”. Bach’s savire claim that the IOC and Olympic games are divorced from politics is absurd.
Bach would do well to remember the story of Gretel Bergmann. Bergmann, who was Jewish, was a world-class German high jumper who was expelled from her sports club in Ulm in 1933 and therefore became ineligible to compete for a place in the Olympics and crowds wondered aloud why she was not competing in the Berlin games. German athletes Erich Seelig, a boxer, along with tennis player Daniel Prenn were also stripped of rights to engage in sport by the Nazis because they were Jewish.
Helene Mayer, a German athlete whose father was Jewish (she was raised a Christian by her Lutheran mother) was finally allowed to compete in the 1936 Berlin Games after having been coerced by Nazi threats and intimidation to return to Germany from her self-imposed exile in the United States. Referred to as “Jewess Mayer” by the Nazi infested Germany Olympic Committee so as to distinguish her from any ‘aryan-Mayer’ she was allowed to compete on the proviso she would give the Nazi ‘Heil Hitler’ salute if she was on the winner’s podium. The IOC continually claimed after the Games that she was proof that Jews were not persecuted by Nazi Germany. She won a Silver Medal in fencing and against her wishes gave the Nazi salute as demanded of her. In 1935 Mayer was forced to flee again to the United States for her safety because of anti-Semitic persecution. As Russia imprisons any dissenters from their war on Ukraine how can the IOC believe Russian athletes are not like Mayer—coerced participants in their nation’s propaganda machine all made possible by the IOC’s facilitation of their participation in Olympic competition despite the ongoing illegal war that carries their tacit endorsement?
History retains the woeful cry from the IOC’s decision and actions that served to rehabilitate nascent Nazi Germany’s waning reputation. What was tantamount to an endorsement of the Nazis by the IOC and failure to oppose the moral and physical danger National Socialists posed by choosing to do nothing and refusing to object with what powers and influence the IOC had would have severe consequences for Jews, Germany and the world. Well before the Berlin Games, starting in 1933, more than 400 decrees and regulations by Nazi Germany severely restricted Jewish life in Germany. Of those, some 193 had been enacted before the 1936 Berlin Games and there existence was known to the IOC and international community. After all, 1933 marked the year Nobel Prize recipient Albert Einstein famously renounced his German citizenship because of anti-Semitic persecution and moved to the United States. The IOC knew full well they were rehabilitating the Nazis with their political decision to proceed with the Berlin Games.
Archives and personal correspondence irrefutably prove the IOC knew about the extensive persecution of Jews and minorities, the so called ‘non-Aryans’ when they chose years before the Games to continue with the Berlin Olympics. The Nazi’s first major curtailment of the rights of Germany’s Jewish community came on 7 April 1933. The ‘Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service’ excluded Jewish people from working in the civil service because they were deemed “politically unreliable”. Seats for Jewish children and student at schools and universities were severely restricted between 1933-1934. The Dachau concentration camp was opened in 1933 along with that in Oranienburg and the extensive death-camp system that eventually followed. Jewish doctors were shortly thereafter forbidden from treating non-Jewish patients, being reimbursed by insurance schemes, rabbis were prohibited from creating kosher foods, Jews were expelled from the army having their pensions, awards and decorations revoked and worse. Still high from the exuberance and international rehabilitation derived from the IOC’s assurances concerning the Berlin Games the Nazi’s continued their campaign of anti-Semitic persecution with renewed vigour. Only 2-years after the games they inflicting the horrors of Kristallnacht upon the Jews and the world. According to the United States Holocaust Museum 6,636,235 died at the hands of Nazi Germany. Yad Vashem places the figure at 5,846,032. What might have been had the IOC used its voice and influence in 1933?
Today, the IOC risks repeating this dark debacle by ignoring the lesson of the 1930s and not prohibiting Russian and Belarusian athletes from participating in international competition as the equals of peace-abiding nations and athletes. Rewarding the evils of the Russian Federation in the name of cordiality or hoping to entice them to engage in the norms of the civilized world by finding excuses to allow them to be rehabilitated without contrition and restitution should be anathema to right-minded persons.
By ignoring that the Russian Olympic Committee made a strong statement in support of Russia’s “Special Military Operation” and therefor set a standard of expectation for its athletes to promote the war on Ukraine the IOC has only weakened the prestige of international sport and insult the memory of the 231-Ukrainian athletes who have died at the hands of Russian invaders. For Russia, its Olympic Committee is an integral part of the State propaganda apparatus and athletes who march under their banner in the name of Olympic competition without protesting Russia’s illegal war have chosen to be part of the Russia war propaganda machine. Tonight’s IOC decision is an insult to all peace-loving athletes, especially those who are victims of Russian brutality and crimes, making them compete against their very invaders who elected to serve in the Russian military instead of taking a moral stand as other Russians have done. The IOC decision to rehabilitate Russian and Belarusian combatant-athletes and their nations by re-admitting them to compete in Olympic Games sets a dangerous precedent and demeans our collective humanity.