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Russian and Belarusian athlete participation ‘works’ despite war, says IOC President Thomas Bach

<i>Laurent Gillieron/Reuters</i><br/>More than 300 fencers have written to the International Olympic Committe regarding Russian and Belarusian athletes.
Laurent Gillieron/Reuters
More than 300 fencers have written to the International Olympic Committe regarding Russian and Belarusian athletes.

By Sammy Mncwabe, CNN

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach has defended plans to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in international competitions.

“First of all, what is maybe most important, what has changed, is that participation of athletes with Russian and Belarusian passports in competitions and in international competitions, works,” Bach said Tuesday, at the start of the IOC Executive Board’s three-day meeting to discuss solidarity with Ukraine, the sanctions against Russia and Belarus, and the status of athletes from these countries.

“We see this almost every day in a number of sports. We see it most prominently in tennis, but we see it also in cycling.

“We see it in some table tennis competitions, we see it in ice hockey, we see it in handball, we see it in football and in other leagues — in the United States, but also in Europe, and we also see it in other continents.”

He added: “It’s even that the governments on whose territory the competitions are taking place, they’re issuing visas [to Russians and Belarusian athletes] with very few exceptions. In other countries, they’re even issuing working permits where it’s necessary for these players and athletes.”

In an IOC press conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, Bach also said that, “The executive board reiterates that the participation of athletes with a Russian or Belarusian passport at the Olympics Games Paris 2024 was not considered either in the consultations or in its deliberations today.”

‘Russia’s aggression’

Bach’s comments come after more than 300 active and former fencers wrote to the IOC urging the organization to uphold sanctions against Russian and Belarusian athletes, saying that allowing them entry back into international competitions would be “a catastrophic error.”

“Russia’s aggression violates not only the norms of international law but also the fundamental values of Olympism, including peace, harmonious development of humankind and respect for human dignity and human rights,” the letter reads.

“As long as Russia’s war of aggression, aided by Belarus, wages on, both states’ athletes and officials must remain excluded from world sport. Given the recent escalation of attacks against Ukrainian civilians, there should be no reason at this time to allow Russia and Belarus to be reintegrated into world sport.

“Integration would lay a precedent in which a nation can violate the values and rules of sport and international peace without fear of consequences,” the letter adds.

The letter — addressed to IOC President Bach, who is a former Olympic fencer, and Emmanuel Katsiadakis, the interim president of the International Fencing Federation (FIE) — was sent on the day the IOC Executive Board is set to begin its three-day meeting to discuss solidarity with Ukraine, the sanctions against Russia and Belarus and the status of athletes from these countries.

CNN has reached out to the IOC and FIE for comment.

In January, the IOC outlined a multi-step plan for Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate at the upcoming 2024 Summer Games in Paris and the 2026 Winter Games in Milan, which was met with criticism from the United States, Canada and several European countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany and Poland.

In a February statement, the IOC reiterated its condemnation of the war in Ukraine, one year on from the start of the invasion.

But the fencers accuse the IOC and FIE of allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes back into competitions, despite the IOC’s February 2022 sanctions as a result of the Ukraine invasion.

“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 letter said.

“This is an apparent breach of the IOC’s position that ‘no international sport events are to be organized or supported by an IF or NOC in Russia or Belarus’ and once again exposes Russian interests outweighing the voice and rights of athletes, especially those from Ukraine,” the fencers say.

It is unclear which tournament is being referred to in the letter. CNN has sought clarification from the IOC and FIE.

Last month, the US and more than 30 other “like-minded” countries backed a proposed ban of Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing in international sports, according to a joint statement.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s sports minister said in January the country would not rule out boycotting the Olympics if Russian and Belarusian athletes are allowed to compete at Paris 2024.

Last week, World Athletics president Sebastian Coe announced Russian and Belarusian athletes will still be excluded from World Athletics Series Events “for the foreseeable future,” reaffirming the organization’s March 2022 decision.

It comes as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has cataloged thousands of cases of civilian casualties in the Ukraine conflict in the six months to the end of January, along with cases of torture, rape and arbitrary detention.

In its latest report, issued Friday, the OHCHR said that “the human rights situation across the country remains dire amid the ongoing armed attack by the Russian Federation against Ukraine.” It had “verified numerous allegations of arbitrary deprivation of life, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance, torture and ill-treatment, and conflict-related sexual violence.”

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