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Let’s talk about fair: why Russians should be banned from the Olympics

From July to August 2024, the 33rd Summer Olympics will be held in Paris – and the question of Russian participation in the event is acute. So far, the International Olympic Committee has not made a final decision on the admission of Russian and Belarusian athletes to the Games. 

Is welcoming the representatives of the aggressor state to the Olympics unacceptable in any capacity? Or the International Olympic Committee may allow them to stand alongside other participants under the neutral flag – and that would be a reasonable compromise?

The fencers organized a training session in a bombed-out gym. Unifecht Club, Kharkiv.
Photo: Mykola Synelnykov

The answer, perhaps, can be found in the Olympic Chapter itself. It outlines seven fundamental principles of Olympism – and Russia has been violating every single one of them. In sports, when you break the rules, you get banned. Today, banning the aggressor state is protecting those core Olympic values and emphasizing their worth.

Russia uses the competition to achieve its own political goals and deter attention from its military interventions. Russian athletes have been caught supporting the war and even agitating Russians to join the Armed Forces. They use training facilities in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine and receive awards from the same state that launches deadly missiles.

No equal competition under the shelling

Olympism, as a philosophy of life, goes back centuries, and its core principles are aimed at building a peaceful society with respect for human rights, equality, and fairness. In this equation, Russia, whose military continues to commit terror in Ukraine, is quickly lost.

For instance, one of the principles refers to “blending sports, culture and education”, which is becoming virtually impossible during a full-scale war. Since February 24, 2022, Russia has damaged more than 3,000 educational institutions, 365 of which were utterly destroyed as of November 2023. Cultural institutions have not had it better: more than 1,700 were damaged, in addition to 835 objects of cultural heritage, and thousands of museum exhibits have been stolen.

Boys and girls train on a basketball court next to their destroyed school in Kharkiv.
Photo: Mykola Synelnykov

Another slogan of the Olympic Charter principles – “the practice of sport is a human right” – is once again losing its relevance due to the actions of the aggressor state. As of October 1, 2023, 351 sports facilities in Ukraine were damaged by the military forces of the Russian Federation.

The Russian war of aggression also automatically negates the equality in the Olympic Charter, as it leaves no conditions for equal competition. There is nothing equal, fair, or neutral about 377 Ukrainian athletes and coaches who have been killed during the full-scale invasion. Among them, 11-year-old Kateryna Dyachenko: a girl died in Mariupol under Russian shelling. Kateryna won several major gymnastics competitions in her age category.

Shoulder straps under a sports uniform

The Charter says that the goal of Olympism is to build a peaceful society. However, sport in Russia is inevitably linked to military structures, and that is not an accident but a structure formed in the Soviet era. There are two leading sports clubs in Russia: CSKA (Central Sports Club of the Army) and Dynamo. The founders of these clubs are the Ministry of Defense, the FSB, the Rosgvardia, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and other law enforcement agencies.

CSKA’s charter defines the organization’s goal as “the development of physical culture and sports in the Russian Armed Forces.” Therefore, athletes actively campaigned to join the Russian Armed Forces, recording propaganda videos with words of support. Similar posts can still be found on CSKA’s official social media.

Russian athletes also regularly appear in public in military uniforms and receive military awards. Biathlete Eduard Latypov, who took part in the 2022 Beijing Olympics, received not only a bronze medal but also the rank of lieutenant and the Order of Merit for the Fatherland, 2nd Class. 

Biathlete Eduard Latypov and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Photo: Russian Olympic Committee

Gymnast Denis Ablyazin, who represented Russia at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, received the Order of Honor award from Putin after the Olympics. As of 2021, Ablyazin held the rank of senior lieutenant.

Skiers Alexander Bolshunov and Denis Spetsov were promoted to the rank of captain by the leadership of the Russian National Guard for their medal places at the Beijing Olympics in 2022.

Gymnast Nikita Nagorny was an Olympic champion in 2021. But he is also the head of the massive children’s and youth “military-patriotic” organization Yunarmiya, which is a structure of the Russian Defense Ministry that educates children in a militaristic spirit.

Russians also have no problem training in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, in the places that were forcefully taken from Ukraine and Ukrainian athletes. Immediately after the Russian occupation of Crimea, CSKA opened its branch there and set up a training base. Young Russian athletes are joining sports companies on the temporarily occupied Ukrainian peninsula, and they could potentially become participants in the Olympic Games.

War undercover

Once, the Olympic Games were such an essential event for Ancient Greece that all wars were suspended during their holding. Today, the sports festival, aimed at uniting people across five continents, has become a tool to divert attention from wars and armed conflicts.

Over the past 15 years, Russia has started wars against neighboring countries three times under the disguise of the festival. The attack on Georgia took place on the opening day of the 2008 Olympics. The occupation of Crimea was prepared under the cover of the Winter Olympics in Sochi: some of the troops guarding the sporting events even took part in the invasion. And the full-scale war with Ukraine began right after the 2022 Olympics and during the Paralympics.

The aggressor country took this “habit” from the USSR, which, in 1980, under the cover of the Olympic Games, sent troops to Afghanistan. 

The sports events have never been separated from the politics for Russia, have never been neutral, despite what the Olympic Chapter demands. The National Olympic Commission of Russia has accepted the regional Olympic committees of the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, the so-called “DPR” and “LPR,” as well as the committees of the occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.

Five rings, one Mordor

Russia widely uses sports achievements as a part of its propaganda narratives, the same ones that fuel its wars. And Russian Olympians, one way or another, become accomplices in it. When Ukrainian athletes have to defend their country on the battlefield, and Ukrainian stations are ruthlessly bombed by Russia, neutrality – whether of flag or public opinion – is a stance of its own. And this stance does not correspond well with the Olympic spirit.

Damaged sports facility.
Photo: Mykola Synelnykov

The last principle states that belonging to the Olympic Movement requires compliance with the Olympic Charter. For years, the world has not seen that compliance from Russia. 

An international sports festival is turning into an instrument of propaganda and cover-up of crimes as long as representatives of Russia remain among the Olympians. And they should not have the privilege of competing on an equal footing with those who are truly devoted to building a peaceful society with respect for human rights, equality, and fairness.