A contest that could define the 2024 Paris Olympics is playing out 18 months before medals are awarded. It’s giving the International Olympic Committee a political challenge with echoes of the 1980s.
Ukraine fired up its campaign on Friday to have Russia and military ally Belarus excluded from the next Summer Games with talk in Kyiv of a boycott and support from sympathetic governments in the Baltics and elsewhere in Europe.
The IOC responded in a statement that “it is regretful that politicians are misusing athletes and sport as tools to achieve their political objectives.” Pushback has been fierce in the 10 days since the IOC set out its preferred path for Russian and Belarusian athletes who do not actively support the war to try to qualify for Paris as neutrals.
By citing human rights arguments — that no athlete should face discrimination just for the passport they hold — the IOC has seemed ready to punish the protesting parties rather than the aggressors in the war.
The IOC has pointed to its own rules and Olympic history to make its case.
It is the document of rules that “governs the organization, action and operation of the Olympic Movement and sets forth the conditions for the celebration of the Olympic Games.” It does say that each of 206 national Olympic committees (NOCs) is obliged to participate in the Olympic Games by sending athletes.
What it does not say is any kind of clear framework for acting against Russia and Belarus in the current situation.
“There is nothing in the Olympic Charter saying if a government starts a war that is opposed by the U.N. then the NOC has to be suspended,” said Sylvia Schenk, a lawyer and sports governance expert from Germany who advises the IOC on human rights.
Any NOC can choose to boycott an Olympics on a point of honestly held principle — knowing that in Lausanne the act will not easily be forgotten or forgiven.
No team has boycotted the Olympics since North Korea snubbed the neighboring South for the 1988 Seoul Summer Games.
That closed a different period in Olympic history after significant boycotts at each Summer Games from 1976 through 1984.
A swath of African countries stayed away from Montreal in 1976 because New Zealand would be there soon after its iconic rugby team toured South Africa.
The United States led the largest boycott in 1980. More than 60 teams refused to go to Moscow after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
IOC president Thomas Bach was among the West Germany athletes who could not go, denying him the chance to defend the team fencing title.
Payback four years later saw the Los Angeles Olympics snubbed by the Soviet Union and Eastern European allies.
The boycott era almost fatally damaged the Olympic brand and is seared on the memory of Bach who has presided over an era of continued commercial success.
Most famously, South Africa was banned by the IOC from competing at any Olympics from 1964-88 because of its apartheid system of racial discrimination laws.
Critics of the IOC’s current stance on Russia point to the South African case. The IOC’s counter point is that South Africa was under U.N. sanctions and Russia currently is not. Russia is a U.N. Security Council member and can veto proposed resolutions.
North Korea was excluded from the Beijing Winter Games held one year ago as punishment for not sending a team to the Tokyo Summer Games in July 2021. North Korea claimed it was protecting athletes from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bach said in September 2021 when issuing the ban that taking part in the Olympics can “show to the world how it could look like if everybody would respect the same rules, if everybody would live together peacefully without any kind of discrimination.” Afghanistan could be banned from Paris next year for denying women and girls the right to play sport. The Charter says “every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination.” The IOC was urged by the World Anti-Doping Agency to issue a blanket ban on Russia less than a month before the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
A hectic lead-in to those Olympics saw WADA-appointed investigator Richard McLaren detail the Russian state-backed doping scheme at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
After the IOC pledged to explore legal options, it instead asked governing bodies of individual Olympic sports to decide within days how, and which, Russian athletes could be eligible for Rio. A flurry of appeals went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
A similar scenario of legal uncertainty could play out before Russians and Belarusians compete in Paris, sports law academic Antoine Duval cautioned on Friday.
“It would be very political and very ad hoc, and with different types of approaches to the issue,” Duval told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
The IOC’s suggested option of Russian and Belarusian athletes competing in Paris as neutral athletes without their flag, anthem or national team name has precedent.
It’s how individual Yugoslavians, but not teams, could compete as independent athletes at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics during the civil war in the Balkans. U.N. sanctions were in force then.
Kuwait competed as independent athletes under the Olympic flag in 2016 because of a relatively trivial issue of a government-backed sports law that was unacceptable to the IOC.
Fallout from the Russian doping scandal has meant teams at the past three Olympics starting in 2018 competed under supposedly neutral names — Olympic Athlete from Russia, and ROC (for Russian Olympic Committee) — without flag and anthem.
Dressed in distinctively Russian colors of red, white and blue, however, it was a compromise unsatisfactory to many. Any Russians competing in Paris will likely be dressed in genuinely neutral colors.