LANE ONE: Bach and the IOC will not budge on Russia now, but that does not mean they will be in Paris in 2024

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The International Olympic Committee and its President, former German gold-medal-winning fencer Thomas Bach, have decided – after some debate – to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete once again in international competitions, as “neutral athletes.”

Actually, the IOC can only recommend a policy stance to the International Federations, who it acknowledges have the “sole authority” to decide who competes and who does not. On Tuesday, United World Wrestling announced that it “unanimously favored the return of wrestlers to competition from Russia and Belarus under the conditions of participation set forth by the IOC.” Russian and Belarusian wrestlers in U-15 and U-17 competitions can return (as neutrals) immediately; in the senior division, an “independent panel” will be formed to figure out if the proposed wrestlers are sufficiently separated from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to be allowed to compete.

World Taekwondo adopted the same terms on Monday, joining the FIE, which voted to allow fencers to return after 15 April. The federations for cycling, judo and tennis already allowed Russians and Belarusians as neutrals. More will follow, as most Olympic-sport federations depend on the IOC for financial survival, so its recommendation is more like an instruction.

The IOC has been roundly criticized for its revised stance, not least by the athletes, federations, National Olympic Committee and government of Ukraine, continuing to fight against a Russian conquest of their country. But do not expect any change – whatsoever – in the position of the IOC, or Bach. Yet.

As he told reporters during a news conference on 4 March of 2020, after being asked repeatedly about the possible cancellation or postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games due to the spread of Covid-19, he said neither had been discussed, and

“I can assure you I will not get tired and to repeat the statement I made: the IOC is fully committed and we are not participating in any kind of speculation.”

Of course, the Tokyo Games was postponed, 20 days later.

That’s instructive when considering the ultimate decision on whether Russian or Belarusian athletes will be allowed to compete at the Paris 2024 Games. Bach specifically said that no decision on Paris has been made and will not be made until closer to the time of the Games, likely in 2024 itself.

To validate its stance, the IOC – and Bach – have relied heavily on references to exceedingly weak “authorities”: two volunteer Special Rapporteurs selected by the undistinguished United Nations Human Rights Council and now on a declaration that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has to be seen in context:

“The 70 other ongoing armed conflicts and wars around the world (source: Crisis Group, CrisisWatch Database) were also considered, including the situations in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and the southern Caucasus. It was noted that NOCs in the regions impacted by these armed conflicts and wars are following the principles of the Olympic Charter. They are not requesting the exclusion of athletes from the other party in the armed conflict or war, and they are allowing their athletes to compete in international sporting competitions without restrictions.”

Both underscore the IOC’s position as not just weak, but depressingly empty.

The position of the Special Rapporteurs was disassembled by German law professor Patricia Wiater, Chair for Public Law, Public International Law and Human Rights at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. Engaged by the German National Olympic Committee to evaluate the Rapporteur reports, she filed a 24-page response, summarized in English in a blog post for the European Journal of International Law.

She noted, in direct contravention to the U.N. Special Rapporteur letter on which the IOC places all its weight:

● “[T]he right not to be treated differently on the basis of nationality is not absolute. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which is the competent UN body to decide on matters of racial discrimination, stated in General recommendation XXX as well as in General recommendation No. 32 that there can be an ‘objective and reasonable justification’ for a differential treatment based on nationality.”

● “[D]uring an ongoing war of aggression, an important legitimate aim is to protect the human rights of the most vulnerable group of athletes, that is, the human rights of Ukrainian athletes. This concerns their human right to mental health, the protection of their dignity, as well as their own right to undisturbed participation in sports as an expression of cultural life, and their right to work in international competitions with Russian and Belarussian participation.

“The president of the Russian National Olympic Committee, Stanislav Posdnyakov, was quoted saying that it would be an honour for every Russian athlete if he or she could contribute to the success of the war. This shows a close connection between sports and war propaganda. To uphold the Olympic postulate of peace that guides international sports (Fundamental Principle 2 of Olympism), the second legitimate aim is to prevent international sporting events from being (ab-)used for the purpose of Russian war propaganda.”

● “The IOC’s approach does not address the problematic issue of war propaganda. How can the IOC and IFs prevent that the victories of neutral athletes of Russian nationality are abused for propaganda and contribute to the escalation of the war? How do Ukrainian athletes feel about the proposed concept of neutrality? How did they feel in sports events in which Russian athletes have already participated? Does the confrontation with Russian athletes have a “chilling effect” on the exercise of their own human rights?

“There are many more open questions about the practicability of the IOC’s concept of neutrality. As long as the IOC and IFs cannot provide satisfactory answers to these pressing questions, everything argues for upholding the exclusion.”

As to the CrisisWatch listing of “ongoing armed conflicts and wars,” an actual review of the February 2023 Global Review cited by the IOC shows nothing of the sort. Not even close.

The February CrisisWatch post has 72 entries; here’s a complete list by continent with condensed versions of what it actually reports:

Africa (24 entries re 24 countries):
Benin (jihadist insurgency), Burkina Faso (jihadist insurgency), Burundi (rights report published), Cameroon (jihadist and separatist insurgencies), Central African Republic (insurgent attacks), Chad (rebel trials began), Cote d’Ivoire (jihadist insurgency), Dem. Rep. of the Congo (jihadist and rebel insurgencies), Eritrea (no interference in Ethiopia), Ethiopia (Tigray peace talks continue), Guinea (opposition protests), Kenya (terrorist threats along borders), Mali (U.N. mission chief expelled; insurgent attacks), Mozambique (insurgent attacks), Niger (coup plotters sentenced; jihadist attacks), Nigeria (vigilante and insurgent attacks), Rwanda (border incident with Congo), Somalia (jihadist insurgency), Somaliland (insurgent attacks), South Sudan (insurgent attacks), Sudan (insurgent peace negotiations stalled), Togo (jihadist attacks), Uganda (corruption allegations), Zimbabwe (political violence).

Americas (7 entries re 7 nations):
Colombia (peace talks with insurgents), El Salvador (gang violence, human rights issues), Haiti (gang violence, insurgencies), Honduras (Supreme Court judges elected), Mexico (criminal violence high), Nicaragua (political prisoners expelled), Venezuela (elections scheduled).

Asia (15 entries re 13 countries):
Afghanistan (Taliban vs. Islamic State violence), Bangladesh (political clashes, refugee camp violence), China (Japan meetings), India 1 (China talks on borders, insurgent attacks), India 2 (Kashmir attacks “at low ebb”), Indonesia (rebels captured New Zealand pilot), North Korea (fires warning missiles), Myanmar (martial law, insurgent violence), Nepal (coalition government collapsed), Pakistan (Taliban and Baloch insurgent attacks), Philippines 1 (insurgent attacks), Philippines 2 (U.S. and Japan assistance, tension with China), Sri Lanka (political protests), Taiwan (China military presence), Thailand (separatist violence).

Europe & Central Asia (14 entries re 13 countries):
Armenia (peace talks with Azerbaijan), Azerbaijan (peace talks with Armenia), Belarus (warns Ukraine, dissent repression), Cyprus (new president elected), Georgia (talks postponed on pro-Russian breakaway regions), Kosovo (improving talks with Serbia), Kyrgyzstan (activists detained), Moldova (new government formed, Russian threats on Transnistria), Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (Azerbaijan and Armenia debating blocked corridor), Russia (more sanctions from West), Tajikistan (Islamic State recruiter sentenced), Turkey (insurgent ceasefire, fighting in Iraq and Syria), Ukraine (continuing Russian invasion), Uzbekistan (trials of insurgents).

Middle East and North Africa (12 entries re 13 countries):
Algeria (insurgency activist now in France), Egypt (fragile economy, jihadist activity in Sinai low), Iran (nuclear standoff continued), Iraq (Turks striking Kurds in north; also anti-jihadist operations), Israel and Palestine (West Bank raids by Israel), Lebanon (economic crisis), Libya (political deadlock), Saudi Arabia (regional cooperation meetings held), Syria (continued insurgent and jihadist violence amid earthquake damage), Tunisia (riots, violence vs. migrants), Western Sahara (Algeria and Morocco still in dispute over area), Yemen (Houthi-Saudi negotiations continue, with sporadic government-Houthi clashes).

Among these 72 entries are only 36 situations of actual violence (50%), of which all but six are insurgent or jihadist attacks over internal control (30 of 36 or 83%). The other six include a modest cross-border incident between Rwanda and Congo and four Middle East conflicts noted in specific areas: (1) Turkish fighting with the Kurds in northern Iraq, (2) the continuing Israel-Palestine violence, (3) fighting over internal control of Syria with government, rebel, Iranian, Israeli and U.S. involvement, and (4) the civil war in Yemen. No wonder there have been no National Olympic Committee complaints. 

There is only one conflict in which a sovereign nation has invaded another with the intention of destroying it: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This war is totally unlike any of the other conflicts listed – one out of 72 – and its unique nature is confirmed by the formalistic “annexation” by Russia of the Crimea in 2014 and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine in 2022.

That’s why the IOC is just wrong with its reference to the CrisisWatch list, and this is confirmed by reference to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations Global Conflict Tracker, which shows one “war”: in Ukraine.

Bach said in an October 2020 news conference, “The unifying power of the Games can only unfold if everyone shows respect for and solidarity to one another.”

That’s not what Russia (aided by Belarus) is doing in Ukraine and with its threats to other neighboring countries. In the “Fundamental Principles of Olympism” listed in the Olympic Charter, let us again note that the second entry reads:

“The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

Russia and Belarus have, are now and continue to violate this principle in their illegal territorial aggression against Ukraine, the only conflict of its kind in the world today. And on that basis, their National Olympic Committees are in violation of Rule 27.1 of the Charter:

“The mission of the NOCs is to develop, promote and protect the Olympic Movement in their respective countries, in accordance with the Olympic Charter.” (Emphasis added)

And that means that the National Olympic Committees of Russia and Belarus are open to suspension (under Rule 59) by the IOC Executive Board and, potentially, expulsion, by the IOC Session.

Bach knows this all too well. And the IOC has been here before. Canadian IOC member Dick Pound – now an Honorary Member – wrote in his 1994 book, Five Rings Over Korea, about the impact of the IOC’s expulsion of South Africa in 1970:

“It brought home, to every South African, in a direct way that could not be explained away by politicians, the total disapproval of the world of the fact of apartheid as a political system.”

A refusal to allow Russian or Belarus to compete in Paris in 2024 can make the same point.

And even as the IOC has opened the door for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete now in those federations that want to please the IOC, Bach has expressly reserved the IOC’s right to slam it shut next year.

Rich Perelman

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