GENEVA (AP) — European lawmakers urged the International Olympic Committee on Tuesday to exclude Russian and Belarusian athletes from the 2024 Paris Games rather than keep seeking ways to let them compete as neutrals in international sport.
The 46-nation Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) held a two-hour session in Strasbourg, France, of its panel for sports issues. It was to help draft a future report on the question of barring the two countries’ athletes and officials from the Olympic movement because of the military invasion of Ukraine.
With 15 months until the opening ceremony in Paris, Olympic sports bodies are weighing the IOC’s formal request — a reversal of its advice last year for exclusion — to look at reintegrating some Russians and Belarusians into games qualifying as individuals, but not in team events.
“Imposing a war has to have a clear consequence. Sport also has to take its responsibility,” Danish lawmaker Mogens Jensen said, adding the “only one clear message to send” was excluding athletes.
The Council of Europe was created after World War II to advocate for freedom and protection of minorities. It expelled Russia as a member last year.
Opening the session Tuesday, PACE president Tiny Kox, a longtime senator in the Netherlands, acknowledged that for many people letting Russians compete at the Paris Olympics was a “totally unthinkable” prospect that could “serve propaganda purposes of the aggressor.”
The IOC was invited and Estonian lawmaker Indrek Saar expressed deep regret that the Olympic body’s president Thomas Bach did not come to Strasbourg.
Instead, the IOC delegation consisted of former Olympic athletes from Armenia and Namibia, plus Francesco Ricci Bitti, who leads the umbrella group of Summer Games sports known as ASOIF.
“It is important for us that the athletes’ representatives’ views are given exposure,” the IOC said in a statement, noting also that the next pending decisions on athlete eligibility are for ASOIF members and their rules.
Track and field’s World Athletics has taken the strongest public stance against Russian athletes, and soccer’s FIFA won a Court of Arbitration for Sport appeal case to uphold its ban on Russian teams.
In statements to the hearing, Ricci Bitti, Armenian wrestler Arsen Julfalakyan and Namibian shooter Gaby Ahrens broadly echoed recent comments by Bach: That sports events cannot just involve nations which agree with each other, that governments deciding which athletes can compete would spell the end of international sports, and that the war in Ukraine is only one of 70 current “conflicts and crises” in the world.
“That’s no explanation at all,” British House of Lords member George Foulkes said of the claim of 70 conflicts. “We’re here defending democracy. I found the special pleading for sportsmen quite sickening.”
A UN-recognized human rights adviser often cited by the IOC and Bach, Alexandra Xanthaki, who has said exclusion from sport based on an athlete’s passport is discrimination, said in a filmed speech “blanket retribution (against athletes) actually undermines peace.”
That view and “the IOC’s heavy reliance on alleged human rights violations (against Russian athletes) is unjustified and without legal merit,” said Ukraine’s deputy minister for sport, Andriy Chesnokov, in a speech delivered online.
Lawmakers in the room and British sports minister Lucy Frazer, in a filmed speech, raised concerns about the IOC’s lack of detail defining neutrality, athletes’ support for the war and their contractual ties to military and state security agencies that should bar them from competing. None of the lawmakers voiced support for the IOC’s plan.
Frazer said the IOC had “limited focus” on traditional Russian funding from military and state-backed sports clubs, and there were likely loopholes to let contracts lapse before Paris then be renewed after.
French sports minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra said in a filmed speech the close historical links between sport and political power in Russia were “very much alive.”
France could yet deny entry visas for Russians and Belarusians during the Olympics, while the IOC executive board chaired by Bach can still ban the countries depending how the war develops.
“This has nothing to do with the Olympic Games,” Ricci Bitti insisted of the current eligibility process being done by sports bodies. “This is a sort of trial on the field of international competitions.
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