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The Eifel Tower is seen through a sculpture of five overlapping rings in the colours blue, yellow, black, green and red
The 2024 Summer Olympic Games are scheduled to take place from July 26 to Aug. 11 in France. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Refugee team offers a way for Russian and Belarusian dissidents to compete at the Paris Olympics

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) began 2023 with high hopes of maintaining its solidarity with Ukraine, but its call to allow individual athletes from Russia and Belarus to attend the 2024 Paris Games has caused backlash.

In response to this position, international athlete-led organization Global Athlete released a statement by Ukrainian athletes in February calling on Olympic officials to withdraw support for the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes at the Olympic Games.

More athletes spoke up following the International Fencing Federation’s (IFF) March 10 decision to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete in international fencing events — just in time for them to compete in qualifications for next year’s Olympics.

In an open letter to the IOC and IFF, over 300 international fencers decried the decision, arguing that allowing these athletes back into world sport sets a grievous precedent where “a nation can violate the values and rules of sport and international peace without fear of the consequences.”

Fencers claimed that any proposed conditions for neutrality for these athletes, such as proving “they’re opposed to the war” or not “tied to the Russian military,” are unrealistic because public denunciation of the war is illegal in Russia.

A crowd of people hold a banner that says 'No Russia and Belarus at Paris 2024 Olympics'
Activists protest the International Olympic Committee’s decision to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete under a neutral flag at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games in front of the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland in March 2023. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)

These expressions of outrage — the latest in a tide of Olympic athletes claiming the IOC is side-stepping commitments to bar Russia and Belarus from international sport — are happening in the wake of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, which Belarus has explicitly endorsed.

An Olympic tightrope

On March 28, the IOC released recommendations for the participation of individual athletes in international sport. The IOC recommended that individual athletes from Russia and Belarus be allowed to participate as “neutral athletes” while their nations remained barred from competing.

This position aligns with human rights law that states everyone is entitled to the rights and freedoms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This decision follows increased pressure from legal experts, including the United Nations Human Rights Council, to allow individual athletes to compete in international sport.

A white older man in a suit gestured while speaking from behind a desk. The Olympic flag stands in the background.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach speaks at the opening of the executive board meeting of the committee in Lausanne, Switzerland on March 28, 2023. (Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP)

The idea of individual athletes competing as neutral athletes is problematic, however, because they still retain their nationality. “For Russian and Belarusian athletes,” argued a group of Canadian athletes, “there is no distinction between the athlete and the state.”

This statement echoed Estonian Olympic Committee President Urmas Sõõrumaa’s sentiments of early February: “Let’s not forget that practically the majority of Russian athletes who make it to the podium are military athletes and get a (military) medal when they win.”

Political pressure

Political pressure, too, is mounting. On Feb. 3, three of Russia’s neighbours announced they would consider boycotting the Olympic Games if Russian athletes weren’t banned from the Paris Games.

A Feb. 21 joint declaration by ministers of 34 national governments stated:

“As long as these fundamental issues of military entanglement and the substantial lack of clarity and concrete detail on a workable ‘neutrality’ model are not addressed, we do not agree that Russian and Belarusian athletes should be allowed back into competition.”

These arguments present a challenge, but also provide the framework for a solution for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete while ensuring their separation from their respective national sport apparatus.

A possible solution

A possible solution that doesn’t require moral compromises or an abandonment of universal human rights and the tenets of Olympism, is for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as stateless members of the Refugee Olympic Team.

The Refugee Olympic Team was created in 2016 to “act as a symbol of hope for refugees worldwide and bring global attention to the magnitude of the refugee crisis.”

Enrolment in the Refugee Olympic Team constitutes a powerful rejection of the politics and/or oppressive situations in athletes’ homelands. The place of origin should make no difference: whether Russia or Syria, Belarus or South Sudan, athletes are massed together as a homogenous refugee team.

A group of people wearing dark blue suits wave behind a person carrying an Olympic flag and a sign that says 'Refugee Olympic Team'
Yusra Mardini and Tachlowini Gabriyesos, of the Refugee Olympic Team, carry the Olympic flag during the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan in July 2021. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The term refugee has a legal definition under the United Nations, and it would be reasonable to assume that any Russian or Belarusian athletes who truly disavow the war, and thus risk persecution at home, would qualify.

Inviting these athletes to compete on the Refugee Team would logically disconnect Russian or Belarusian military complicity and demonstrate the IOC’s commitment to treating athletes equally, regardless of where they are from.

Standing for unity and peace

The IOC has an opportunity to disavow the violence and illegality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by extending the platform and status of refugee athletes to Russian and Belarusian athletes.

The IOC should continue to ban Russia’s and Belarus’ Olympic committees and bar athletes who support the Ukrainian-Russian war from competing in the Olympic Games, whose rings above all stand for unity and peace.

The IOC should allow stateless athletes to compete on terms that have already proven themselves to be effective in the past. Olympic values illustrate humanity’s unwillingness to be subsumed by the bloody politics of oppression, violence and war.

The inclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes on the refugee team could potentially address Olympic athletes’ criticism of the IOC’s suggested pledge of disavowal.

It’s important to note the serious potential consequences for Russian and Belarusian athletes who take this pathway. The term “refugee” is not a shield against any retribution their former governments might take. These athletes might not only end up stateless, but might also not have a home to go back to or to live in safety.

The potential for statelessness may be addressed, as it is with the current refugee team, even if only temporarily. However it raises the question of whether enforcing one human right — that of non-discrimination — justifies the violation of another: the right to a nationality. This is another serious potential weakness that we don’t yet have a solution for.

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