The problem with the International Olympic Committee’s decision to allow some athletes from Russia to compete at next summer’s Paris Games is not about fairness or maintaining an appearance of neutrality.
It’s about cruelty.
By forcing Ukrainian athletes to compete alongside those who represent a regime trying to destroy their country, to possibly share medals podiums with them or to shake their hands, is one more harm layered on top of all the others they’ve endured these last two-plus years. Their cities have been battered, and their family and friends killed, injured and displaced, for no other reason than Vladimir Putin doesn’t believe Ukraine deserves to exist.
And now the IOC wants them to pretend that all is well, that Putin won’t use these “neutral” athletes as a sign of Russia’s supposed strength and superiority. The callousness is outrageous, the expectation Ukrainian athletes should accept this additional trauma without complaint monstrous.
Yet, sadly, par for the course. Whenever there is a choice between courage and expediency, it’s a certainty IOC president Thomas Bach will go with the latter. He will contort the ideals of the Olympic movement until they are unrecognizable if it means currying favor with Putin.
“For almost a year, together with the partner countries, we fought on the diplomatic front so that this decision was not adopted. Despite all the efforts made, despite the numerous casualties among the military and the civilian population, the destruction of infrastructure and the occupied territories, our voice was not heard,” Vadym Gutzait, president of Ukraine’s Olympic Committee, said Friday.
The IOC’s announcement Friday that it will allow select athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete in Paris was surprising only for its timing, coming a week after an Executive Board meeting where the issue supposedly wasn’t even discussed. Then again, why would the board have needed to? Anyone who has watched Bach operate knew he was going to move heaven, earth and everything in between to make sure some Russian athletes were in Paris.
It won’t be as many as Putin wanted, and Putin will surely be incensed no Russian teams can compete. But some athletes are better than none, and Russia’s presence will loom as large over these Games as it did at the last three, regardless of what colors or name its athletes are using.
“There is no such thing as a `neutral team’ or `neutral athlete’ at the Olympic Games. Nationality is a central element of the Games – athletes are standard-bearers whose success is strongly associated with their homeland, regardless of whether flags, anthems or national colors are stripped away,” Rob Koehler, director general of Global Athlete, said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports.
“Removing identification does not change the fact that a team or athlete represents their country – and in the case of Russia, represents and potentially supports or serves for, the Putin regime.”
As for the IOC’s admonishment that any neutral athletes allowed to compete in Paris “must not participate in any alternate ceremonies organized by any third party” during or after the Games, good luck with that. Putin and his cronies already know Bach and the IOC don’t have a spine when it comes to their wrongdoing, so what’s adding one more transgression to the list?
Run a state-sponsored doping program that makes a sham of the Sochi Games? No problem! Do an end-around the sanctions for said cheating, mocking everyone who does follow the rules in the process? We’ll let it slide this 12th time. Start a completely unprovoked war that violates the hallowed Olympic truce and has left thousands of Ukrainians dead and even more homeless, Olympic athletes included? Surely there’s a loophole here somewhere.
Bach insists this decision is the will of the people — which is more than a tad ironic since athlete pleas for the IOC to take a hard line on Russia for its doping schemes have repeatedly been ignored. But this groundswell of support for Russia is about as legitimate as Putin’s election next spring will be.
This was how it was always going to go, and everyone has always known it.
As infuriating as Bach’s lack of a backbone is, it’s heartbreaking in this case, too. This is not some neighborhood spat over fence lines or paint colors. Ukraine is fighting, desperately, to save its country and its culture from extinction, all because of Putin’s despotic desires.
Bach says the IOC doesn’t play politics, and that it’s not fair to make Russian athletes pay for the sins of their leaders. But the IOC has done just that many times in the past. South Africa was banned from the Olympics for 24 years because of its apartheid regime. North Korea wasn’t allowed to compete at the Beijing Games in 2022 after it kept its team home from Tokyo because of COVID fears.
By insisting it is not taking a side, the IOC is doing just that. And it is siding against Ukraine.
“Neutral flag is an illusion and this contributes to normalizing the Russian war of aggression!” Sweden sports minister Jakob Forssmed wrote on social media, calling the decision “upsetting and very regrettable.”
By banning athletes from Russia and Belarus, the IOC could have told the world — and Putin — there are some deeds too heinous to ignore. That there are consequences for trampling on the ideals of fair play, respect and cooperation, let alone someone else’s country.
Ukraine and its athletes have suffered untold damage as the result of Russia’s unprovoked war. Rather than trying to alleviate some of that, the IOC is piling on, its cowardice adding to the Ukrainians' pain.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine suffers more after IOC's decision to allow Russian athletes