Hints of Russians’ return to international sport spark debate over their exclusion

It’s the questions in international sport that won’t go away: Should Russian and Belarusian athletes be allowed to compete? If not, how long are they supposed to stay in sporty Siberia?

These issues have taken on a new urgency this month as winter sports competitions are held for the first time since earlier this year, when these two nations were expelled in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The normally conflict-averse International Olympic Committee even called for individual sports to exclude Russians and Belarusians, but framed this recommendation as a way to prevent national governments from interfering in the sport by denying visas to athletes from those countries.

Little thought was given to how long the prohibitions or the war might last. The Beijing Winter Olympics had just ended. The 2024 Summer Games in Paris were more than two years away. FIFA, the world governing body of football, was quick to exclude Russia from the qualifying competition for the World Cup, which was due to start in Qatar on November 20. The major international summer sports, including swimming and track and field, barred Russians and Belarusians from their world championships.

But the sporting calendar is fast approaching the Paris Games and qualifying competitions for the event will be in full swing next year. That deadline, combined with the IOC’s lofty goal of seeking peace through sport – and the more practical aim of maintaining a relationship with Russia, a powerful Olympic partner – leaves the organization’s leaders wrestling with a problem for which there is no easy answer gives: How to stop punishing athletes for the actions of their governments and how to do it in the midst of an escalating war.

Efforts to find a solution, however, are also running headlong into the emotions of sports leaders from countries both frustrated by Russia over the war and still furious at years of doping violations that have corrupted competition after competition.

“How is it that a national federation can compete normally when it has invaded a country and blown up its training centers?” said Max Cobb, secretary-general of the International Biathlon Union, whose executive board overwhelmingly voted last month voted to reaffirm the ban on Russian and Belarusian participation.

Not all sports have followed this path. The international federation of boxing recently voted to go in the opposite direction and lift its bans. On Saturday, however, the International Ski Federation followed that of the Biathlon Union, voting at its fall session to continue the ban on athletes from Russia and Belarus, “with due regard for the integrity of FIS competitions and for the safety of all participants and in accordance with the IOC recommendations,” the organization said in a statement.

According to TASS, Russia’s state news agency, the country’s sports minister Oleg Matytsin said the decision would “deprive sports fans of a spectacular fight for medals and athletes a serious competition. Russian skiers are among the strongest in the world, without them all international competitions lose their relevance, become less interesting and exciting, and the results on the scoreboard are significantly inferior to the previous ones.”

In the absence of a global policy on Russia and Belarus’ participation, there is a jumble of regulations growing more complex by the week, and few know exactly who will be allowed to participate in the coming months.

In most so-called Olympic sports, such as biathlon, cross-country skiing and figure skating, nations qualify a certain number of athletes (and coaches) based on the country’s overall performance in previous seasons. Athletes compete as part of these teams. This dynamic leaves almost no separation between athletes and their countries, and justifies those who are in favor of punishing Russia and Belarus for the invasion by barring their athletes from participating.

Last Wednesday, however, in an address in South Korea to heads of national Olympic committees from dozens of nations, IOC President Thomas Bach urged sports officials not to allow the war to harm the Olympics’ mission as Russia backed its relentless bombing of infrastructure and civilian targets has escalated.

“Choose the path of unity and peace,” Bach said at a meeting of the Association of National Olympic Committees.

Bach insisted sanctions must remain in place as the Russian invasion violated both the Olympic truce and its charter, particularly the recent illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions. These include non-compete clauses in Russia and Belarus, as well as the appearance of those countries’ flags, anthems and officials. But his speech also seemed to lay the groundwork for a day when Russian and Belarusian athletes can compete again, perhaps even before the end of the war.

“Athletes should never be victims of their own government’s policies,” Bach said at the beginning of the speech. He later added: “Olympic sport needs the participation of all athletes who accept the rules, even and especially when their countries are in confrontation or war,” Bach said. “A competition between athletes only from like-minded countries is not a credible symbol of peace.”

However, as almost always, Bach left the final decision on the admission of athletes to the individual sports federations. Bach’s words carried weight this weekend as the International Ski Federation’s Executive Council met to decide its policy.

The ski association had already reserved places for Russian and Belarusian athletes and coaches. Even these tentative steps angered certain members. The national umbrella organizations for skiing from Norway and Finland jointly asked the FIS to exclude Russian and Belarusian representatives from future meetings. Norway left meetings attended by officials from those countries.

The board of the international luge federation voted last month to continue the suspension of Russian and Belarusian athletes. As with skiing, the World Skating Federation has set quotas for Russia and Belarus, but has not changed its stance and continues to exclude Russians, who are among the best figure skaters in the world. The first major event of the season, Skate America, near Boston this weekend, was attended by neither Russians nor Belarusians, much to the chagrin of those countries.

“The motto ‘Sport is far away from politics’ doesn’t work anymore,” Tamara Moskvina, the longtime Russian coach, said in a statement this week from St. Petersburg, where she runs an ice skating school. “Of course I’m sure common sense will resurface and the ban will be lifted soon.”

Russians and Belarusians have largely been allowed to play tennis, though not as part of a national team or with a flag or country name attached to players’ names, although players from Ukraine have spoken out about the anger and pain the they sense if they are Russian players avoid them.

Russians and Belarusians also continue to play in professional organizations such as the NHL and top soccer leagues. In these sports, the athletes are basically independent contractors.

The World Judo Federation also voted earlier this month to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes at its world championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, but only under a neutral flag. In response, Russian officials announced they would boycott the event.