The Olympics in a Time of War

5/4/2023 10:08 AM

Guest blog by Mel Huang

Although portrayed as a global event to promote peaceful competition, the Olympic Games have always been intersected by conflict. Even in recent years, Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008 riled host Beijing for stealing their limelight. Clearly not a deterrence for belligerence, the current debate around the world is whether to let Russia (and its ally Belarus) participate in international sporting events, especially the upcoming Paris 2024 Summer Olympics.

Russian athletes have already been competing as neutrals, not allowed to display their flag, due to widespread and state-sponsored doping. The country have since been ostracized in the international sporting world for its invasion of Ukraine, banned from participating in many venues or otherwise barred from representing their country.

Making a huge statement, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), led by German Thomas Bach, has called for the athletes to be allowed to continue as neutrals. This is perhaps unsurprising from Bach, who has been heavily criticized for pushing for Russia's reinstatement in the Olympics during the doping scandal.

Bach is no stranger to controversy, involved heavily in the cover-up in the controversy over the disappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by Chinese Communist Party officials, as well as the bungled handling of the COVID-caused postponement of the 2020 Summer Games in Japan.

This remark earned a sharp rebuke from Ukraine, the victims of direct Russian warmongering. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called out Bach, saying "using sports to whitewash war crimes is sickening."

Ukraine, citing the number of athletes killed defending their country and the lack of fairness due to the inability to train normally, has launched a global campaign to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing in international sporting events, also floating the idea that Ukraine will boycott the Olympics if the ban is not instituted.

Soon after, some of Ukraine's closest allies, such as the Baltic and Nordic countries, echoed the same sentiments, and some individual countries raised the possibility of others boycotting the games.

Quickly the IOC pushed back, saying that boycott threats only leads to escalation of the situation in and out of sports. "It is regretful that politicians are misusing athletes and sport as tools to achieve their political objectives," said the IOC in a statement that seems tone-deaf and self-serving, ironically escalating the situation even further.

At first, few others have followed Ukraine's closest allies. Paris, the host of the 2024 Summer Olympics, has sided with those keeping the door open for Russians to compete as neutrals. President Emmanuel Macron insisted that sports should not be politicized, and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo hinted similarly.

Just as Olympics officials continue their media attack on the proponents of a ban or boycott, Paris Mayor Hidalgo spectacularly switched sides on the debate, suddenly telling Radio France she's against the concept of Russian and Belarusian athletes competing even as neutrals.

Upping the ante, Hidalgo made a symbolic visit to Kyiv, telling her counterpart (and former boxing World Heavyweight Champion) Vitaly Klitschko that as long as Russians bomb, target civilians and infrastructure, and occupy Ukraine, she does not want Russian athletes to compete at all. She openly challenged Olympic officials by adding, "I have no doubt that the International Olympic Committee will be able to support this position."

At a meeting with officials in Lithuania from 35 countries, including sports powerhouses US and Australia, there was widespread agreement that Russia and Belarus should not be able to compete while war is being waged against Ukraine.

"We know that 70% of Russian athletes are soldiers, noted Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský. "I consider it unacceptable that such people participate in the Olympic Games in the current situation, when fair play obviously means nothing to them."

Although the idea of athletes competing as neutrals remain a possible compromise, Norwegian Cultural Minister Anette Trettebergstuen argued that the IOC was itself acting "provocative" with its statements, adding: "Neutrality is not possible. It's a dead end."

What the world will see in Paris in July 2024 remains to be seen, as 17 months is a long time in global affairs, whether it's war or peace. However, as qualifications for many events are already starting, this decision cannot come soon enough.