During the 139th Session of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) last Friday, the IOC President Thomas Bach offered an in-depth look at the organization’s position on sanctioning Russia for its war on Ukraine. Current IOC policy includes banning events in Russia and allied Belarus, as well as asking International Federations to remove Russian and Belarusian athletes from their events.
“[W]Why are our sanctions limited to government and national symbols and not extended to all members of the Russian Olympic community? Bach asked. “The answer is: according to the rule of international law, sanctions can and should only be imposed on those who are responsible for something. This war was not started by the Russian people, the Russian athletes, the Russian Olympic Committee or the IOC members in Russia.
The two Russian IOC members, former Olympic pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva and President of the Russian Tennis Federation Shamil Tarpishchevdid not participate in Friday’s session despite Bach’s support, according to Reuters.
“Imagine where the precedent of such a violation of the rule of law by us would lead,” he added. “Every individual, every athlete, every sports official, every sports organization should be punished for any illegitimate political action by their government. There is no justice if you paint everyone with the same brush. It would even be counterproductive because it would play into the propaganda of those who claim that the sanctions are only part of a larger plot directed against their country.
“By the way, our approach is in line with governments that are also bound by this rule of law when it comes to their sanction measures. Nor can they sanction individuals solely because of the passport they hold. Therefore, we are closely monitoring who supports this war with their statements or actions and who has drawn and will draw the necessary consequences.
Bach explained that the IOC recommendation against Russian and Belarusian athletes in international competition was a protective measure rather than a punishment.
“Let me re-emphasize that these are protective measures – not sanctions – measures to protect the integrity of competitions,” Bach said. “The safety of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials could not be guaranteed due to the deep anti-Russian and anti-Belarusian sentiments in so many countries after the invasion.”
In defending the IOC’s decision not to apply new sanctions against Russia and Belarus, Bach opposed what he called “the total politicization of sport”.
“We had to act quickly because it was obvious that governments wanted to decide who can participate in which international competitions,” he said. “This is not only true for the governments of the host countries of such competitions. Some governments prohibit athletes from their country from participating in any competition with Russian or Belarusian athletes. There are governments that threaten to withdraw funding from any athlete who participates in such a competition. Some governments exert public and political pressure on National Olympic Committees and national sports federations.
“We have had to and continue to have to consider this situation since the end. Today it is Russia and Belarus, but if we do not act, tomorrow it will be the government of country A which does not want the athletes of country B to participate. Or government C asking its athletes not to compete against athletes from country D and so on.
“It would be a situation contrary to all the principles on which we base ourselves,” Bach continued. “If it is up to politicians to decide who can participate in which competition, then the non-discriminatory foundation of our global sport system is gone. That would be the full politicization of sport. It would mean that sport and athletes would become one tool of the system of political sanctions.
At the same time, Bach did not underestimate the significance of the current political moment, calling it “a turning point in world history.”
“When I say this is a turning point in history, I think everyone agrees that the world will be different after this war, there will be a new world order and you are already seeing a new one developing. world security order [with Finland and Sweden asking to join NATO],” he said. “And we can’t ignore that.”
Bach also acknowledged that the IOC was falling short of its mission to unite the world through sport.
“Our task is, whenever there is a political circumstance interfering in our mission, in our work, to do everything we can to maintain the Olympic Games and to maintain the sport, beyond the politics as much as possible,” he said. “Then we have to deal with those realities, and that’s why we’ve taken the protective measures, and that’s why we’re saying we’re aware of the fact – we regret the fact that right now – we’re not can’t live up to our mission. We can’t have that unifying power of peaceful sports competition. And that hurts, and on the other hand, encourages us to work even harder, and it also encourages us to hope even more than as soon as possible, peace will prevail.
As qualifying events for the 2024 Olympics in Paris begin soon, Bach remained vague regarding Russian and Belarusian participation. “We have to go step by step,” he said. Until the so-called next step, the sanctions will remain in place, but are unlikely to get worse based on Bach’s recent comments. These penalties include the loss of hosting privileges for aquatic events such as the Short Course World Championships, which have been Recently moved from Kazan, Russia to Melbourne, Australia.
During his speech, Bach also mentioned that the IOC’s relations with Russian political leaders have “deteriorated considerably in recent years”.
“It deteriorated following the doping scandal, cyberattacks and even personal threats against individuals from the IOC and the Olympic Movement,” he said.
His full comments are available here.