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World Aquatics to allow Russian, Belarusian athletes to compete as neutrals

World Aquatics President Husain Al-Musallam recognizes the challenges on the international stage and the responsibilities of providing a competitive, fair, and inclusive environment for every competitor. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images - image credit)
World Aquatics President Husain Al-Musallam recognizes the challenges on the international stage and the responsibilities of providing a competitive, fair, and inclusive environment for every competitor. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images - image credit)

Athletes from Russia and Belarus will soon be permitted to compete as neutrals in World Aquatics events, the sport's governing body said on Monday.

World Aquatics announced a set of criteria that would allow athletes from the two countries to return to international competitions for the first time since March 2022, when they were suspended due to the continued Russian invasion of Ukraine.

A maximum of one "individual neutral athlete" from the two national federations will be allowed to compete in an event, according to the new criteria set by the independent Aquatics Integrity Unit.

"The World Aquatics Bureau recognize the dedication, commitment, and talent of athletes, regardless of their nationality," World Aquatics President Husain Al Musallam said in a statement.

"Despite the challenges we face on the international stage, we acknowledge our responsibility to foster a competitive, fair, and inclusive environment for every competitor."

The new criteria for re-introducing back Russian and Belarusian athletes were established by a specific task force organized by World Aquatics in April, following recommendations by the International Olympic Committee in March.

The task force surveyed athletes across World Aquatics and reported that 67 per cent supported the participation of individual neutral athletes who meet the criteria.

Among the new criteria, athletes must not have previously shown support for the war in Ukraine and have no involvement with the Russian or Belarusian militaries or national security agencies.

World Aquatics has appointed a panel to vet athletes, coaches and officials to make sure they have not shown any support for the war — such as statements, social media posts or taking part in pro-war demonstrations.

With only individual athletes allowed to return, groups of Russian and Belarusian athletes will remain unable to compete in swimming relays, synchronized diving events, water polo, and artistic swimming.

Neutral athletes will compete in plain white uniforms and cannot feature their nation's flags, anthems or symbols.

Further anti-doping protocols will also be implemented, including a "Focused Anti-Doping Program" featuring targeted testing, thorough investigations and close monitoring of the athlete's biological passport and whereabouts prior to competition.

The next opportunity for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete in a World Aquatics event would be October's World Cup events in Berlin, Athens and Budapest.

Athletes from Russia captured five swimming medals at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, including Evgeny Rylov, who won each men's backstroke gold. However, Speedo ended its partnership with Rylov after he appeared at a March 2022 pro-war rally.