So Mr Bach, will nothing ever be enough to ban Russia from the Olympics? | International Olympic Committee

Picture the mise-en-scène in Paris next year, on the opening day of the Olympics. At the final of the 10m air rifle shooting mixed team event, the Russian Sergey Kamenskiy presses his eye to his gun, squeezes the trigger, and – a millisecond later – is triumphantly celebrating gold. Meanwhile 1,500 miles away in Kyiv, rubble from homes and hospitals continues to pile up, along with the bodies of the dead.

Far fetched? Hardly. The International Olympic Committee is determined to establish a pathway for Russians to compete in Paris. And it won’t be deterred by widespread condemnation from Ukrainian athletes, or the expectation that 35 countries – including the UK and United States – will call for a ban this week. Instead on Sunday the IOC president, Thomas Bach, doubled down by denying his organisation was on the wrong side of history.

Let us indulge the IOC’s position for a moment. Its core argument is that no athlete should be punished for their passport, or the sins of their country. Do that, and where do you stop? By barring the US team from the 2004 Games for the invasion of Iraq? Armenia and Azerbaijan for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? Israel for its occupation of Palestine?

Notably it also has the United Nations on its side. In a recent letter to Ukraine’s minister of sport, Bach noted approvingly that two UN special rapporteurs had expressed “serious concern” that banning Russian and Belarusian athletes would be discriminatory. One of them, Alexandra Xanthaki, denied being pro-Russia on Twitter last week, adding: “Soooooo, the US waged an illegal war in 2003. I don’t remember people trying to ban Michael Phelps from swimming.”

However, what is also striking in the letter is Bach’s anger. Not towards Russia, as you might expect. But with Ukraine for threatening to boycott the Games, something he says would “violate the Olympic charter”.

Let us try to be kind to Bach. He sincerely believes that Olympics unite the world in peaceful competition and friendship. Indeed, such is the childlike faith of the IOC in its mission, it’s a wonder the Olympic anthem hasn’t been replaced by Kumbaya. Yet his lopsided focus is bizarre. Because while he seeks ways to allow Russian athletes to compete, he says nothing about what – if anything – it would take to ban them.

So come on, Mr Bach, what are the IOC’s red lines? Would Russian boots marching in Kyiv be enough? Chemical weapons? The threat of going nuclear? It is not as if the IOC hasn’t taken unilateral action in the past. Germany, Italy and Japan had all its athletes barred after the world wars, while South Africa faced three decades in the wilderness over apartheid. Sometimes there is no other choice.

Bach might also reread principle 5 of the Olympic charter. “Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport,” it states, ”without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

How has Russia not trampled all over that? Not least when 228 Ukrainian athletes have been killed since the invasion, and numerous sports facilities bombed and destroyed.

Friendship? Solidarity? Fair play? Was Russia doing that when it corrupted the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi by doping its athletes – and trying to hide it with a scheme that involved passing steroid-riddled urine samples through a mouse hole before swapping them with clean urine? Bach himself called it “a shocking and unprecedented attack on the integrity of sports and on the Olympic Games”.

Bakhmut’s stadium is destroyed by a missile attack in July last year
A missile attack last year destroyed Bakhmut’s stadium which is used as a training facility for Ukraine’s Olympic athletes. Photograph: Vincenzo Circosta/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock

Yet four years later in Pyeongchang, Russia was at it again, with intelligence operatives conducting a sophisticated cyber attack on the opening ceremony. And the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing was dominated by the shock positive doping test for the 15-year-old skater Kamila Valieva.

When speaking to the Ukrainian skeleton racer Vladyslav Heraskevych at the weekend, he wondered whether the IOC would ever say enough is enough. “Russian sport remains very weaponised,” he said. “Even at the recent Australian Open tennis, they took great pride in their players doing well, even when they were supposedly neutral athletes.

“And don’t forget the Z-letter crowd in the stands, waving Russian flags and hanging out with Novak Djokovic’s dad,” added Heraskevych, who made global headlines when he held a sign saying “No War In Ukraine” at the Beijing Winter Olympics. “It will be no different in Paris. They will use the Olympics as propaganda.”

So how might this all play out? Whatever the criticisms from western governments in the coming days, don’t expect a mass boycott. Yet at the same time, the IOC knows it will have a PR disaster on its hands if it allows Russians en masse into the Games.

Insiders suggest that the IOC will instead place multiple conditions on entry, including banning the Russian flag and anthem and requiring its athletes to wear all-white uniforms. More significantly, anyone with links to the Russian military is also likely to be barred – which could result in 75% of their team and officials being declared ineligible.

Indeed, there are some who suspect such a policy might be enough to upset the Russians so much they would pull out of the Paris Games altogether, which would save the IOC from a major headache and a PR disaster. In the meantime it might do well to reflect on something else: the pity of being unable to participate at a sports event is minuscule compared to the unrelenting misery of war.

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