COC head says Russian, Belarusian athletes must oppose Ukraine war to participate in Olympics

On the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the status of Russian and Belarusian athletes as Olympic participants remains unclear. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press/File - image credit)
On the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the status of Russian and Belarusian athletes as Olympic participants remains unclear. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press/File - image credit)

On the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the head of the Canadian Olympic Committee maintains there is no place for Russian and Belarusian athletes at next summer's Olympic Games in Paris, but acknowledges the emerging reality that it may happen.

If it does, David Shoemaker wants strong conditions, including affected athletes publicly denouncing the war.

"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," David Shoemaker told CBC Sports.

The prospect of a complete ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes shifted last month when the International Olympic Committee laid out a path for Russian and Belarusian athletes to qualify and compete as neutral athletes with no flags or anthems.

"No athlete should be prevented from competing just because of their passport," the IOC's executive board said in a statement on Jan. 25.

Since the war began Feb. 24, 2022, Shoemaker and the COC have been adamant that athletes from Russia and Belarus be banned from participating in international sporting events.

"Nothing has changed for the positive to make us reconsider this view," Shoemaker said.

Shoemaker said maintaining an outright ban on a nation that has repeatedly flouted international and Olympic rules continues to be the COC's preference. At the same time he acknowledged that Russian participation is possible and that Canada and the rest of the world must find the most palatable way forward.

Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press
Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Seeking definition for 'neutral' athlete

"As a society we seem to have accepted that there's such a thing as innocent athletes from Russia. Tennis players competing at the Australian Open. Nearly 200 NHL players participate and earn paycheques in Canadian arenas all throughout the winter time," Shoemaker said.

"So we're going down this path of whether there's a possible way of defining a neutral athlete in a similar vein."

This week Canada was among 35 nations that issued a statement demanding the IOC clarify the definition of what a "neutral" Russian athlete would look like.

"As long as these fundamental issues and the substantial lack of clarity and concrete detail on a workable 'neutrality' model are not addressed, we do not agree that Russian and Belarusian athletes should be allowed back into competition," the statement said.

"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."

Shoemaker said he doubts the IOC will be able to provide an acceptable definition.

"I don't know if it's achievable. I think we've asked for a lot of things to be addressed that would be really threading a needle."

The COC was among more than 200 national Olympic committees that provided the IOC advice on conditions that need to be in place to even consider Russian participation. Shoemaker said that includes no Russian or Belarusian symbols, anthems or participation in medal ceremonies.

Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters
Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

"I would weed out any athlete tied to the Russian military. They, by definition, should not be considered," Shoemaker said. "We also can't overlook the importance of making sure that we haven't somehow elevated the importance of inclusion of those athletes over the needs of Ukrainian athletes."

Ian Garner, an expert on Russian propaganda at Queen's University, said the idea of the IOC separating Russian athletes from Russian politics will be extremely difficult.

"That neutrality is completely removed from them as soon as they step back into the Russian media sphere," Garner said. "Because the state will simply write up articles, produce videos, give out medals and awards as if these were regular athletes participating on behalf of the Russian national team."

Garner said Russia has a long history of links between national athletes and the military with athletic success and uses them to boost nationalism and support for military operations.

"Having these athletes return to the country and pose with soldiers, with troops and show off to young Russians what you can be by learning the self-disciplined teamwork that they're displaying is hugely important for the state," he said.

In response, countries such as Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, have floated the idea of a boycott if the IOC allows Russian athletes to compete.

"Russian sportsmen will not fake it under a neutral flag because there is no neutrality in the current world," Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte told Reuters.

Shoemaker dismissed the idea of a boycott and said Canadians should expect to see their athletes in Paris.

"Under any circumstance this cannot evolve into a conversation where we're talking about whether it's appropriate or not for Canadian athletes to be present, they're not the ones who have done anything wrong here," he said.