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IOC boss Bach insists on neutrality of sport

Jörg Strohschein
March 23, 2023

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has defended discussions that could allow athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete under a neutral flag at the games in Paris. Ukrainian protesters are outraged.

Ukrainian refugees in Essen Germany holding signs protesting the possibility of Russian and Belarusian athletes competing in the 2024 Paris Olympics
Ahead of the visit of IOC President Thomas Bach to a political forum in Essen, Germany, Ukrainian refugees protest against any participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes at the Paris 2024 OlympicsImage: Jana Rodenbusch/REUTERS

It was a quiet protest. About 160 Ukrainians and their supporters had gathered in front of the Philharmonic Hall in Essen on Wednesday evening to show their anger and despair regarding recent talks within the International Olympic Committee (IOC). "Terrorist Putin" was the message on a sign held by one demonstrator. Another sign read: "Do not allow Russia and Belarus to go to the Olympics."

The reason for the demonstration in Essen was the visit of IOC President Thomas Bach, who was invited to a political forum to offer his view of the global political situation from a sporting perspective. The IOC is apparently formulating plans to allow athletes from Russia and Belarus to participate in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris under a neutral flag. 

Before the event in Essen, Bach met with two representatives of the protesters. Former professional football player Igor Denysiuk, who represented the Ukrainian-German club Opora, appeared frustrated after the roughly 10-minute meeting. In response to the demand that Russia and Belarus be banned from competing in the Olympics, Bach had said, according to Denysiuk, that the IOC cannot do anything against participation unless the United Nations were to oppose it.

Bach sees 'natural tension'  

The discussions in Essen focused on the question of whether sport can be apolitical. The demonstrating Ukrainians had a clear opinion on the matter. "We want the IOC to stop propagating and tolerating war," 23-year-old Ukrainian Yana Koval told DW.  "It does that when it lets Russian and Belarusian athletes compete under a neutral flag. Russian politics is exploiting this for its propaganda." 

IOC President Bach speaking at a political forum in Essen, Germany, hands outstretched
Bach speaks on the tension between sport and politics at a forum in Essen, GermanyImage: Jana Rodenbusch/REUTERS

Bach defended the IOC at the event. "The world is governed by politics, not by sports organizations," Bach said. "There is a natural tension there." Sport, he added, stands for joy, integration and tolerance, and it can build bridges. If politics has the upper hand and does not respect these values, sport can no longer unfold its unifying power. This was shown, he added,  by the Olympic boycotts in the 1970s and 80s. 

The IOC president himself won team gold with Germany as a fencer at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. 16 African countries boycotted those Games in protest of apartheid in the participating nation of South Africa. Bach was unable to compete in Moscow in 1980 because the West boycotted the Games following the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union a year earlier. The lesson from the boycotts, Bach said, is that "we have to be politically neutral, but not apolitical. And we must not fall into the mistake of elevating ourselves as referees." 

IOC wants to avoid setting precedent  

Bach said sports were often overwhelmed by people calling for activism. "We cannot solve all the problems of this world with sport," Bach said. "You can't put that on sport, and you can't overload it with that." That's why a clear distinction from politics is needed, he said. "A competition among athletes can set an example, it can inspire. But no more." Politics is responsible for the rest, he said.   

He also addressed calls for the IOC to completely exclude athletes from Russia and Belarus at the 2024 games in Paris. "We understand the Ukrainian athletes. No one can get away from the images and the suffering [of the war]," Bach explained.

Bach said Ukraine's government was calling for all Russians and Belarusians to be isolated. This is in contradiction to the UN Declaration of Human Rights and also the Olympic Charter. "This puts us in a dilemma. If we set a precedent, it will destroy Olympic sport. We're talking about international competitions, which can then become a political pawn."  

Next week, the IOC plans to draw up guidelines for qualifying for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. The plans are expected to include the right of athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete. "Deciding that is not an enviable task," Bach said. History will judge it, he said, repeatedly stressing that the IOC's main task is to make peace, not to isolate. The demonstrators outside of the doors of the Essen Philharmonic Hall, however, saw the issue quite differently.

This article was originally written in German