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With the Paris Olympics 18 months away, the debate over Russian athletes is back

The Olympic flag and Russian flag seen during the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.
Paul Gilham
Getty Images
The Olympic flag and Russian flag seen during the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

Updated February 2, 2023 at 9:46 AM ET

With over a year to go before the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, a deeply political question already looms over the event: whether to allow Russian athletes to compete amid their country's invasion of Ukraine.

Over nearly a year, the Russian bombardment of Ukraine has destroyed hospitals, schools and homes. The attacks have disrupted access to heat and water with intentional attacks on utility infrastructure. The United Nations estimates that more than 7,000 civilians have been killed, hundreds of them children. Human rights groups have documented evidence of war crimes committed by Russian troops, including torture, sexual assault and executions.

In recent weeks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pressed IOC President Thomas Bach and French President Emmanuel Macron to exclude Russian athletes from next summer's Olympics, arguing that allowing their participation would be tantamount to an endorsement of "terror."

Last February, shortly after Russia began its invasion, the IOC initially encouraged the banning of the country's athletes from international competitions.

But last week, Olympic officials reversed course when they opened the door to allowing Russian athletes to compete under a neutral flag in the 2024 games, arguing that a complete ban could constitute discrimination.

A variety of other sanctions were already in place against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, along with Belarus, which has allowed the Russian military to use its territory to attack Ukraine.

Those sanctions will remain in place, the IOC said last week — including a ban on the formal appearance of either country at the Olympics via the use of their flags, anthems or "any other identifications whatsoever."

But as for the countries' athletes, the IOC said it was persuaded in part by the "serious concern" of two United Nations special rapporteurs over the possibility of a ban on the athletes "based solely on their nationality."

As a result, the committee left the door open for their participation under a neutral banner next summer.

"There is no such thing as neutrality when a war like this is going on," Zelenskyy said in response. "It is obvious that any neutral flag of Russian athletes is stained with blood."

On Thursday, four other countries — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland — joined Ukraine in urging the IOC to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes. Ukraine and Latvia have threatened a boycott if athletes are allowed to participate while the war is ongoing.

If the IOC's decision stands, it is a continuation of the status quo for Russia, which has been suspended from officially competing in the Olympic Games since 2017 after an investigation uncovered evidence of a state-sponsored doping scheme involving more than 1,000 Russian athletes. Russia has consistently denied state involvement.

Under the suspension, Russian athletes competed at the Olympics under the name of "Olympic Athletes from Russia" in 2018, then as the "Russian Olympic Committee" in 2021 and 2022.

Olympic history is full of disputes about national representation

Controversies over participating nations and flags have been part of the modern Olympic Games practically from the start.

In 1908, only the fourth summer games ever, Finland — then an autonomous part of the Russian Empire — was allowed to compete separately from the empire but could not display its own flag.

After World War I and World War II, some countries that comprised the Central Powers (Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary and Turkey, then the Ottoman Empire) and the Axis powers (Germany and Japan) were not invited to the 1920 and 1948 Games that followed the wars.

Heated debates and boycotts took place regularly in the postwar decades over Israel and the Middle East, the Soviet Union, North and South Korea, and other geopolitical rifts.

Perhaps most famously, the IOC banned South Africa from the Olympics from 1964 until 1992 over its apartheid policies. Similarly, Rhodesian athletes were blocked from competing in the games in 1968, 1972 and 1976 over the country's white supremacist rule (the successor state, Zimbabwe, returned to the Olympics in 1980).

But attitudes have shifted. International bodies like the United Nations and IOC have often argued that bans on athletes on the basis of their home country are a form of discrimination and xenophobia.

Though the IOC recommended shortly after the invasion began last February that international sports federations not invite or allow the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes, the committee's stance has changed as the conflict has dragged on.

"No athlete should be prevented from competing just because of their passport," the IOC said last week.

Still, the committee says that "strict conditions" for Russian and Belarusian athletes should be considered, such as disallowing athletes found to have "actively support[ed] the war in Ukraine."

More than 220 Ukrainian athletes and coaches have been killed in the conflict, according to Vadym Huttsait, the country's Minister of Youth and Sports.

Huttsait, a former Olympic fencer, said Tuesday that he hoped a boycott would not be necessary. "The main thing is I believe that the war in Ukraine will end in 2023. This will be our Victory," he wrote on his Facebook. "And in 2024, our athletes will go to the Olympics in Paris."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.