COC chief says Russian and Belarusian athletes must defy war in Ukraine to compete in Olympics
Marking the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the head of Canada’s Olympic Committee claims there is no place for Russian and Belarusian athletes at next summer’s Summer Olympics in Paris, but acknowledges the emerging reality that this could happen .
If that is the case, David Shoemaker wants strong conditions including affected athletes publicly denouncing the war.
“If there is a way to have exceptions for those athletes who can prove to us that they are against the war, we would be willing to look into what the international community has in mind,” David Shoemaker told CBC Sports.
The prospect of a total ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes changed last month when the International Olympic Committee outlined a way 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 Executive Board said in a statement on January 25.
Since the war began on February 24, 2022, Shoemaker and the COC have insisted that athletes from Russia and Belarus be banned from participating in international sporting events.
“Nothing has changed for the better that would make us reconsider that view,” Shoemaker said.
Shoemaker said maintaining an outright ban on a nation that has repeatedly flouted international and Olympic rules remains the COC’s preference. At the same time, he acknowledged that Russian involvement was possible and that Canada and the rest of the world would have to find the tastiest way forward.
I’m looking for a definition of a “neutral” athlete
“As a society, we seem to have accepted that there is such a thing as innocent athletes from Russia. Tennis players competing at the Australian Open. Nearly 200 NHL players compete and earn their salaries in Canadian arenas throughout the winter,” Shoemaker said.
“So we’re going down that avenue of whether there’s a way to define a neutral athlete in a similar way.”
This week Canada was among 35 nations to issue a statement calling on the IOC to clarify the definition of what a “neutral” Russian athlete would look like.
“Until these fundamental issues and the significant lack of clarity and concrete details on a workable ‘neutrality’ model are addressed, we do not agree that Russian and Belarusian athletes are allowed to compete again,” the statement said.
“We have grave concerns about how feasible it is for Russian and Belarusian Olympians to compete as ‘neutrals’ – under the IOC’s conditions of non-identification with their country – when they are directly funded and supported by their states.”
Shoemaker said he doubted the IOC could provide an acceptable definition.
“I don’t know if it’s accessible. I think we asked for a lot of things to be addressed that would really be needle threading.”
The COC was among more than 200 national Olympic committees advising the IOC on conditions that must be met for Russia to even consider participating. Shoemaker said this does not include Russian or Belarusian symbols, anthems, or participation in medal ceremonies.
“I would weed out any athlete associated with the Russian military. They shouldn’t be considered by definition,” Shoemaker said. “We also cannot overlook the importance of ensuring that we do not prioritize the importance of including these 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.
“They will be completely stripped of that neutrality once they re-enter the Russian media sphere,” Garner said. “Because the state will just write articles, produce videos, give medals and awards as if they were regular athletes competing on behalf of the Russian national team.”
Garner said Russia has a long history of ties between national athletes and the military with sporting success and uses them to bolster nationalism and support for military operations.
“For these athletes to come back to the country and pose with soldiers and troops and show young Russians what they can do by learning the self-disciplined teamwork they show is hugely important to 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 athletes will not fake it under a neutral flag because there is no such thing as neutrality in the world today,” Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte told Reuters.
Shoemaker dismissed the idea of a boycott, saying Canadians should expect to see their athletes in Paris.
“Under no circumstances can this lead to a conversation where we talk about whether or not it’s appropriate for Canadian athletes, they’re not the ones who got it wrong here,” he said.