Should Russian Athletes Be Allowed at the Paris Olympics?

Russian swimmer Kliment Kolesnikov won two individual medals at the Tokyo Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto


01 May 2023

Should Russian Athletes Be Allowed at the Paris Olympics?

The Russia question is looming. Over the next 14 months, swimming will be at the center of a global dilemma, the issue of whether Russian and Belarussian athletes will be cleared to return to international competition in time for the 2024 Olympics. Most sports have instituted blanket bans over Russian athletes and teams since their country’s invasion of Ukraine early last year, but the continuing countdown to the Paris Games is bringing the issue front and center.

In swimming, the Russian men were a major force at the Tokyo Olympics two years ago. Competing under the banner of “Russian Olympic Committee” with the country’s flag banned (thank to a previous systematic doping scandal), Evgeny Rylov swept the backstroke events, and Kliment Kolesnikov got on the podium in both of his individual races, completing a 1-2 finish in the 100 back. The Russian team took silver in the 800 freestyle relay.

CHIKUNOVA Evgenia ENS Energy Standard (ENS) ISL International Swimming League 2021 Match 8 day 1 Piscina Felice Scandone Napoli, Naples Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Russian teenager Evgeniia Chikunova is the new world-record holder in the women’s 200 breaststroke — Photo Courtesy: Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

If they returned to international racing in time for the Olympics, Rylov and Kolesnikov would certainly become medal contenders, and the same is true for Evgeniia Chikunova. Fourth in the 200 breaststroke in Tokyo by just four hundredths, the 18-year-old Chikunova smashed the world record in the event last week with a time of 2:17.55, more than two seconds faster than Tatjana Schoenmaker’s previous mark.

Will they be in Paris? The International Olympic Committee and World Aquatics have already initiated the process of bringing Russian athletes back into fold. In line with IOC guidelines, swimming’s governing body approved a task force last month to explore potential pathways, although the current timeline is unclear. IOC President Thomas Bach has referenced his organization’s “unifying mission,” which would mandate Russian participation.

Those policies have come under fire from Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and countries such as the United States and even host nation France have expressed opposition to Russian inclusion. Ukrainian distance swimmer Mykhailo Romanchuk would surely be upset at the notion of competing against Russians after his father has previously fought on the front-lines defending his country from the invasion.

The debate is playing out already: the Ukrainian judo federation has announced plans to boycott next week’s World Championships since Russian and Belarussian athletes are entered to compete as neutral athletes. Meanwhile, a Ukrainian national canoe and kayak competition held last week in Uman was marred by a Russian rocket attack on the city. At least 10 people were killed, and Lyudmila Luzan, a two-time Olympic medalist at the Tokyo Games, was so shaken that she withdrew from the final day of competition.

Still, the situation is tricky to reconcile since the majority of Russian swimmers have no involvement with their nation’s war. Why should they be punished for their government’s actions? Members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team could surely sympathize, having been excluded from the Moscow Games because of boycott. That boycott accomplished little politically and hurt only athletes representing America and western allies, none of whom had any involvement in or connection to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Then again, Russia is the aggressor in this war, violating international peace and a country’s sovereignty without being first attacked or otherwise provoked. When that happens, a country loses international privileges, and rightfully so.

RYLOV Evgeny ENS Energy Standard (ENS) ISL International Swimming League 2021 Match 9 day 1 Piscina Felice Scandone Napoli, Naples Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Evgeny Rylov — Photo Courtesy: Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

However, there is no gray area regarding Rylov’s status. IOC recommendations released in late March stated: “Athletes who actively support the war cannot compete.” In March 2022, Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin, the instigator of the entire conflict. The 26-year-old embraced and promoted an unjustified war. Simply, he has no place in international competition or the Olympics. End of story.

The IOC also recommended that “teams of athletes with a Russian or Belarusian passport cannot be considered.” That would seem to disqualify Russian swimmers from racing relay events in international swimming competition. Again, rightfully so. Relays are the ultimate national-pride-focused events, and an aggressor country in a wrongful war does not deserve that opportunity.

It’s individual swimmers that have not directly supported the war, most notably Kolesnikov and Chikunova, for whom the right answer is ambiguous. They didn’t have anything to do with the war, but then again, neither did South African athletes banned from international competition for three decades because of the country’s policy of apartheid. Jonty Skinner broke the world record in the 100 freestyle in 1976, but he never had the chance to represent his country at the Olympics.

In Russia and many other countries, national sport federations receive significant government funding and are practically extensions of the government (while the U.S. government, by contrast, is much less connected to representative sports organizations). That structure makes it harder to defend Russian inclusion.

Moreover, the context of the war matters. Russian troops first entered Ukraine on February 24, 2022 — four days after the Winter Olympics concluded. The timing was no accident. Putin knew that his country’s act of war would be met with immediate international condemnation and that Russian athletes would no longer be welcome in international competition.

Nothing has changed since. The war is just as despicable as it was 14 months ago, so why should the world’s sporting leaders be striving to accommodate athletes who very much represent the Russian government?

Imagine a scenario just like the upcoming judo championships, where Ukraine decides to boycott the Olympics attended by Russian and Belarussian competitors with the full support of the IOC. That would be simply embarrassing.

And finally, consider the situation that Ukrainian athletes find themselves in. Romanchuk, the country’s only Olympic swimming medalist since 2004, has spent time training in Germany, but his compatriots have not been so lucky. The war has completely changed the realities of their lives. The threat of violence is real and constant, and even electricity use is limited throughout the country. Daily life is on edge, and sometimes, like at the recent canoe/kayak competition, athletics take a back seat to real tragedy.

If a Ukrainian swimmer worked for years to overcome the horrors of the ongoing conflict and reach the Olympic level, only to find competition included someone from the country threatening their homes and lives, that would be devastating. That alone should be enough to validate keeping Russian representatives out of Paris.

The opinion of the article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of ISHOF.

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