If their international federation validates their return, the athletes concerned will be able to "compete as neutral individual athletes", provided that they do not "actively support the war in Ukraine" and are not "under contract" with the army or security agencies of both countries, IOC boss Thomas Bach told reporters.

Above all, the Olympic organization recommends that this measure "can be revoked at the discretion of the federation" concerned, and has been careful not to decide the most explosive subject, namely the participation of Russians and Belarusians in the next Olympic Games.

While Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic countries are already threatening to boycott the 2024 Olympics in the event of a Russian and Belarusian presence, the IOC will decide on this issue "at the appropriate time, at its sole discretion, and without being bound by the results of qualifying competitions", announced the German leader, thus leaving himself complete latitude.

'A slap in the face to Ukrainians'

But already, the German Minister of Sport has considered that the return of the banned was "a slap in the face to Ukrainian athletes". "International sport must clearly condemn Russia's brutal war of aggression. This can only be done by completely excluding Russian and Belarusian athletes," Faeser said in a statement.

Far from applauding the IOC's decision, the president of the Russian Olympic Committee Stanislav Pozdniakov, who had called for unconditional reinstatement, denounced "unacceptable" and "discriminatory" criteria.

Pressed to clarify its position, the IOC announced last December that it was "exploring ways" to bring Russians and Belarusians back into the fold of world sport, after recommending their exclusion at the end of February 2022 due to the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army, with the support of neighboring Belarus.

Minister Nancy Faeser at a press briefing in Berlin, March 24, 2023 © John MACDOUGALL / AFP/Archives

After four months of consultations with the entire Olympic world, the Lausanne body has chosen to leave to the international federations and competition organizers the primary responsibility of inviting or not the athletes of the two countries, contenting itself with "recommendations" to "harmonize their approach".

The IOC executive suggests maintaining the exclusion of all Russian and Belarusian teams and limiting the return to competition to athletes "holding a Russian or Belarusian passport" if they compete "individually" and under a neutral banner, respect anti-doping regulations and do not "actively" support the war in Ukraine, a criterion that promises to be difficult to assess.

Fencing under tension

For Thomas Bach, the participation of Russians and Belarusians in the professional tennis or cycling circuit shows that "it already works", including when they have to face Ukrainian opponents.

He relied above all on two principles hammered home for several months, namely "the refusal of any political interference in sport" and "the non-discrimination of any athlete", which according to the IOC prevents from excluding Russians and Belarusians solely on the basis of their passport.

Left in limbo in recent weeks, the international federations had already seized the issue in dispersed order: last Thursday, that of athletics confirmed the exclusion "in the near future" of athletes from both countries, even though its qualifying events for the next Games have begun.

Russian Olympic Committee President Stanislav Pozdniakov speaks at a press conference on December 17, 2020 in Moscow © Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP/Archives

Conversely, fencing became on 10 March the first Olympic sport to reinstate them from April – the beginning of its qualification period – "subject to possible future IOC recommendations/decisions".

However, the first reactions illustrated the extent of the difficulties to be overcome: last Thursday, the German Fencing Federation gave up the organization of the Women's Foil World Cup stage scheduled for early May in Tauberbischofsheim, judging that there were still "too many open questions" on the reinstatement of excluded shooters.

A few days later, the Ukrainian Federation of the discipline announced that it would boycott any competition in which Russian and Belarusian athletes were involved. A threat that hangs over the 2024 Olympic Games more than ever.

© 2023 AFP