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UK and France demand ban on Russia, Belarus state-funded athletes

  • April 25, 2023

The United Kingdom and France’s sports ministers have insisted that Russian and Belarusian athletes must never compete as neutrals as recommended by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) because they could still be funded by their governments.

The IOC sanctioned Russia and Belarus after Moscow invaded Ukraine in February 2022 with Minsk’s support, but last month recommended that their athletes be allowed to return to international competition as neutrals.

Several Olympic sports federations have taken steps to readmit Russians and Belarusians as neutrals, but Ukraine is threatening to lead a boycott of the Paris 2024 Games unless Moscow withdraws its soldiers.

The United Kingdom’s Minister for Culture, Media and Sport Lucy Frazer told a Council of Europe parliamentary hearing on Tuesday that the IOC recommendations’ absence of reference to state funding was worrying.

“Secondly, the provisions set out on military and national security agency links are currently minimal … We know that the links between state, military and sport in Russia and Belarus are root and branch,” she added at the meeting in Strasbourg.

“Many Russian athletes have been active in their support for Putin’s invasion.”

The IOC recommendations say Russian or Belarusians contracted to their military cannot compete.

French Sport Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera said the IOC had “very tangible and basic issues” to clear up before the Olympics start in July next year and that state funding would be a breach of neutrality.

“What is the position the IOC intends to take when it comes to athletes who are funded and financed by the Russian or Belarusian state?” Oudea-Castera asked.

“Or those who are sponsored or benefitting from financial support from entities having links with Russia or Belarus?”

She added, “None of us should countenance the idea of a Ukrainian athlete being forced to share a pitch, a court, a field, a starting line with state-sponsored athletes from Russia and Belarus.”

The IOC is to finalise decisions on the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes at a later date.

Representing the Olympic body at Tuesday’s meeting, former Armenian wrestler Arsen Julfalakyan, chair of United World Wrestling’s athletes’ commission, said he opposed a ban.

Julfalakyan said he had never advocated for banning Azerbaijani athletes despite the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between both countries that has killed thousands.

“I realised what war means and what it looks like. I lost friends, relatives and people I knew closely … I’ve never called for a total ban on Azerbaijan athletes and I won’t do that here either,” said the Olympic medallist.

“Sport should never be politicised. It’s not acceptable to use sport as an instrument for punishment. It’s not up to governments to decide – that will end international sport.”

As well as threatening a boycott, Ukraine has also barred its national teams from competing in events which include Russian and Belarusian competitors.

“The government will not financially support the participation of Ukrainian teams in such competitions,” Deputy Sport Minister Andriy Chesnokov told the meeting.

Russia has condemned the West for what it says is an unjustified attempt to politicise sport for geopolitical gain.

Wimbledon to donate relief to Ukraine

Meanwhile, Wimbledon organisers said on Tuesday they will offer extra financial support to Ukrainian players and causes after reversing a ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes at this year’s event.

The All England Club, which runs Wimbledon, announced last month that the ban imposed last year would not continue after they were stripped of ranking points and punished by the WTA and ATP with hefty fines.

Competitors from the two nations will be able to enter the Grand Slam, which starts on July 3, as “neutral” athletes providing they comply with certain conditions, which include a ban on expressing support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

At a press conference to announce plans for the 2023 tournament, organisers revealed that one pound from every ticket sold – expected to be more than 500,000 pounds ($625,000) in total – will be donated to Ukrainian relief.

Funding will be provided for a day at the tournament for 1,000 Ukrainian refugees.

Two hotel rooms per Ukrainian player will also be offered free of charge, as well as training facilities for the duration of the grass-court season.

Russian and Belarusian players have been able to compete on the men’s and women’s tours as neutrals, including at the other Grand Slams.

Russians Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev are both ranked in the top six of the men’s game, while Belarusian women’s world number two Aryna Sabalenka won the Australian Open earlier this year.

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