Canadian Olympians demand COC withdraw support of 'neutral' Russian athletes at Paris Games
Some of Canada's top Olympians are publicly demanding that the Canadian Olympic Committee reverse its position and withdraw support of Russian and Belarusian athletes participating at the 2024 Olympic Games.
Dozens of athletes have signed an open letter to the COC, condemning its apparent support of possibly allowing Russians and Belarusians to compete at the Paris Summer Games as "neutrals."
This came after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it wanted to see athletes from both Russia and its close ally compete in Paris.
"We're here to be heard and to make the COC listen to us," retired rugby player Jen Kish, one of the Olympians who signed the letter, told CBC News.
"We want them to get the message that there is no middle ground here. You're either on one side or the other. And what part of history do you want to be on?"
In the letter, the athletes say allowing neutral Russian and Belarusian participation "sends a message that the COC is no longer concerned with Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine."
IOC softens stance, COC follows
A year ago, the IOC was among the first international bodies to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine and recommended sports organizations ban Russian athletes from international competitions.
But that changed in January when the IOC's executive board said it no longer believed an athlete "should be prevented from competing just because of their passport."
It went on to recommend exploring a "pathway for athletes' participation in competition under strict conditions."
In response, the COC said in a statement that it still supported the IOC's prior stance that Russia and Belarus should be barred from international competitions.
But it added that excluding "athletes solely by virtue of their nationality also goes against core principles of the Olympic movement."
A few weeks later, COC head David Shoemaker told CBC Sports: "If there's some way of having exemptions for those athletes who can prove to us that they're opposed to the war, we'd be willing to consider what the international community has in mind."
The shift infuriated Kish and fellow Olympians, including retired hurdler Perdita Felicien and retired cross-country skier Beckie Scott, who acknowledged they may face repercussions for speaking out against the COC's position.
"The greater risk to us is staying silent and complicit with this statement because we disagree with it so strongly," Scott said.
Scott says she and other Olympians spoke with COC board members, but it became clear they were on "vastly different sides" and that their discussions behind closed doors were going nowhere.
"They haven't really amounted to any kind of change in perspective or positioning," she said. "And so we thought, you know what? The next step is to go public."
WATCH | Scott explains the decision to go public:
A total of 42 Canadian Olympians have signed the letter.
In response, the COC says its position hasn't changed — athletes from both countries should be banned, while leaving room for a "workable neutrality model."
"We value the opinions and concerns raised by the athletes in today's letter and offered to speak with several of the signatories numerous times over the past month to discuss their views and clarify our position, including at a special meeting of the COC Board of Directors convened for that purpose," the committee said in an email to CBC News.
"Our position, consistent over the past year, is that we support the exclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes from international sport while the invasion is ongoing. This is aligned with the recent statement, signed by Canada and more than 30 other Nations, that call for the continuation of the ban in the absence of clarity and concrete details on a workable neutrality model."
Ottawa's position unchanged
Felicien says the letter is not about coming down on or embarrassing the COC.
"This is about doing what we feel is right. We have such great sporting influence, such great power as a sporting nation," she said. "And I think for a lot of us who are sitting back seeing this, it's a little bit embarrassing to see our country not align itself with what is right."
Canada is indeed among 35 signatories to a statement to the IOC calling on it to clarify the idea of "neutrality" for Russian and Belarusian athletes.
"In Russia and Belarus sport and politics are closely intertwined," the statement, released last month, read in part.
"We have strong concerns on how feasible it is for Russian and Belarusian Olympic athletes to compete as 'neutrals' — under the IOC's conditions of no identification with their country — when they are directly funded and supported by their states."
Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge said Canada's position is clear, tweeting on Feb. 10 that both countries "must be banned" from the Paris Games.
"Let's stand in solidarity with Ukraine," she said.
Kish, Scott and Felicien want the COC to do the same.
"Is it hard to stand up to Russia? Is it hard to stand up to [IOC president] Thomas Bach and the IOC? Absolutely," said Felicien. "However, you have to do it… you have to have moral courage and you have to do what's right."
Scott says she believes the IOC has changed its position because of its deep ties with Russia.
"Russia is a very powerful, well-resourced nation with deep pockets and the capacity to host big events, major games. They are a very important partner to the IOC," she said. "And so [the IOC is] looking for a way out of the sanctions that were put in place a year ago."
The IOC's move also drew a sharp rebuke from Ukraine, which said it was handing Moscow a "platform to promote genocide."
The IOC rejected the criticism as "defamatory."
Felicien says the COC's suggestion that Russian athletes could publicly denounce the war to be allowed to compete is simply unrealistic, as they would then be targeted and persecuted at home.
"The Russian Olympic Committee has asked its athletes to encourage [the military], to support the war, to participate in the war. This is what we're up against," she said. "And so to think that they will arrive in Paris and be completely neutral… it does not exist. It is not in touch with reality."
WATCH | Felicien on the separation of sports and war:
Felicien said while there may be Russian or Belrusian athletes who do not support the war, their Olympic dream is not more important than basic human rights and democracy.
"When I think about what Ukrainian people are going through and I think about an individual Russian, a Belarusian athlete, potentially not going to Paris 2024," she said. "To me, there's no comparison in what's at stake."
Scott is even more blunt.
"The idea of athletes from Ukraine sharing a pool or a track or a field with athletes from Russia is pretty morally reprehensible," she said.
And while Ukraine itself has threatened to boycott the Paris Games if Russia is allowed to compete, Kish says that would be even worse.
"Is it not absurd that we have an aggressor at the Olympics possibly — and the victim at home and giving up their dream? Is that not absurd? Watching the bully win? That to me makes me not even want to watch the Olympics," Kish said.
"Because that's not what the Olympics stand for. It's absurd and it's sad."
WATCH | Boycott by Ukraine would be sad, Kish says:
Below is the full statement from the Canadian Olympic Committee:
"The Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) stands in solidarity with Ukraine and, aligned with the Government of Canada and international community, condemns the Russian and Belarusian invasion of Ukraine.
We value the opinions and concerns raised by the athletes in today's letter and offered to speak with several of the signatories numerous times over the past month to discuss their views and clarify our position, including at a special meeting of the COC Board of Directors convened for that purpose.
Our position, consistent over the past year, is that we support the exclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes from international sport while the invasion is ongoing. This is aligned with the recent statement, signed by Canada and more than 30 other Nations, that call for the continuation of the ban in the absence of clarity and concrete details on a workable neutrality model."