KYIV: Kyiv could drop a threatened boycott of next year’s Paris Olympics if athletes from Russia and Belarus, allies in the war in Ukraine, compete under a neutral flag rather than their national colours, Ukraine’s sports minister told Reuters.
Vadym Huttsait said there had been no decision to soften Ukraine’s stance but indicated Kyiv could be open to reversing a policy that would likely rule out Ukrainian athletes from the summer games.
In April, Ukraine barred its national sports teams from competing in Olympic, non-Olympic and Paralympic events that have competitors from Russia and Belarus – regardless of the flag athletes from those two countries compete under.
“We have started discussions with the presidents of federations, the federations themselves, the sportspeople,” he said referring to the neutral flag proposal for Russian and Belarusian athletes.
“If this will happen, will we participate or not? The decision has not been made yet, and therefore there is no softening yet,” he said.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has killed tens of thousands, destroyed cities, uprooted millions and hammered the economy. Russian troops used Belarus as a staging ground for their abortive attack on Kyiv early on in the invasion.
Some Ukrainian athletes condemned the blanket ban on competing against Russians and Belarusians as a self-inflicted wound that would deprive Kyiv of representation and its sports stars of their careers.
Huttsait, an Olympic gold medal winning fencer decades ago, told Reuters that the choice was an extremely difficult one, and that the original decision was still in place but was under discussion.
“We can’t be next to them (the Russians), but on the other hand we are punishing our sportsmen if they cannot compete… they want to go out there, win, and show our flag on the podium.”
Huttsait said his ministry was discussing with Ukrainian sports federations if athletes would be prepared to compete against Russian and Belarusian athletes taking part under a neutral flag.
Huttsait said he last talked to the IOC three weeks ago and tried to convince them that Russians and Belarusians cannot compete in the Olympics while Ukrainian cities are being bombed.
The Olympic governing body, the IOC, has said that Ukraine’s decision not to permit its athletes to participate in qualifiers for the Paris games under the ministry’s current policy was “hard to understand.”
The IOC, which says it has to “manage a complex reality”, has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but says that athletes should not be punished because of their passports.
The Olympics body is expected to allow Russian and Belarusians to compete under a neutral flag but that is not enough for some senior Ukrainian officials.
Andriy Yermak, head of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, said on Wednesday the IOC had not officially invited Russia and Belarus, ruling them out of competing under their national flags.
He voiced gratitude, but said in a post on the Telegram messaging app that Russian and Belarusian sportsmen should not be allowed to take part under neutral flags either.