2024 Paris Olympics: Russia, IOC at war with one another

KRAKOW, POLAND - JULY 23, 2023:
A protester in Krakow holds a powerful poster with Putin and Lukashenko's images, featuring an Olympic torch covered in blood and the words 'Bloody Olympics', on July 23, 2023, in Krakow, Poland. On the 515th day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, activists from Ukraine and Belarus protested again the ongoing conflict and asked for the ban of Russian and Belarussian athletes at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A protester holds a poster with Vladimir Putin, featuring an Olympic torch covered in blood and the words 'Bloody Olympics.' The IOC will not recognize Russia at the Summer Olympics in Paris over the continued war in Ukraine. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

On paper, Russian athletes at the 2024 Paris Olympics might look a lot like Russian athletes at previous Olympics. Some will be in Paris this summer; they have not been outright barred from the Games. In fact, when the International Olympic Committee decided last year to relax its ban on Russian participation, the move was criticized by many Westerners as further evidence of the cozy relationship between Russia and the IOC.

In reality, though, that relationship has fractured.

Only a few dozen Russians have been invited to compete at the 2024 Olympics as “Individual Neutral Athletes”; and some have declined. The rest of the hundreds who’d typically take part either have been deemed ineligible or have spurned the Games.

So there will be far fewer Russians in Paris than there were in Beijing or Tokyo. They will be entirely absent from some sports, including gymnastics and track and field. Those who do compete will don neutral colors, rather than the red, blue and white they wore in 2022, 2021 and 2018. And none are allowed to compete as part of a team.

These “strict” eligibility conditions have “outraged” Russian authorities, some of whom accused the IOC of “racism,” “neo-Nazism” and "political repression." Some argued that all Russian athletes should refuse neutral status and band together to boycott the Games.

Although a full-blown boycott hasn’t quite materialized, the athletes’ participation has been controversial within Russia — where state-affiliated actors are trying to undermine the Paris Olympics, and where officials tried to revive the “Friendship Games” as an Olympics alternative.

Russia was initially banned by most of the international sports community in February 2022, shortly after its military invaded Ukraine.

Its Olympic status was previously muddled by state-sponsored doping. The current sanctions, though, are mostly unrelated; they are punishment for the ongoing war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more.

Belarus — Russia’s closest ally in the war — has been subject to the same sanctions.

The IOC then amended its policy in 2023. Russian and Belarusian flags, anthems, colors, names, diplomats and teams would remain banned, but athletes could compete as individuals under the “AIN” designation — with two core caveats:

  1. “Athletes who actively support the war will not be eligible.”

  2. “Athletes who are contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military or national security agencies will not be eligible.”

Both stipulations ruled out dozens of athletes in an authoritarian country where A) there can be tremendous top-down pressure to support the government’s stance, and B) some elite sports clubs, such as CSKA Moscow, are linked to the military.

The other barriers were the international federations that govern specific sports — and set Olympic qualification criteria. Each of them had its own Russia policy. Some followed the IOC’s lead and accepted Russians as neutral athletes. Others, such as World Athletics, maintained unconditional bans — thereby shutting off an athlete’s path to Paris, even if the athlete was anti-war.

For those who did qualify, the IOC put together a three-person panel — which included former NBA star Pau Gasol, now a member of the IOC Ethics Commission — to review each case. The reviews could consider “every source of information that is possible,” IOC director James Macleod said in March — meaning everything from social media posts to tips from the Ukrainian government — to determine whether an athlete supported the war or had military ties.

As of July 5, two days before the Olympic entry deadline, the IOC had extended invitations to 34 Russians and 23 Belarusians in 12 different sports — a majority of them either wrestlers or tennis players.

Of the 57 invitees, the IOC said, 39 had accepted, 15 had declined, and three judokas were apparently undetermined or undecided.

A day later, however, the Russian Wrestling Federation announced that all 10 of its qualifiers — nine of whom had previously accepted invites, according to the IOC — would “refuse to participate in the Olympic Games.”

Many others, across dozens of sports, were deemed ineligible or never even applied for neutral status. A few even appeared onstage at a pro-war rally. Many, to varying degrees, chose patriotism over personal ambition, and opted to not pursue Olympic dreams. When the first Russian swimmer approved as a neutral by World Aquatics withdrew his Olympic application in April, the president of Russia’s swimming federation said he didn’t “see a single person” requesting to participate.

Eventually, only one other swimmer emerged — Evgenii Somov, who attended the University of Louisville and is based in the United States.

Evgeniia Chikunova, a world record-holder and would-be medal favorite, spoke for many when she told Russia’s Match TV: “Will I go to the Olympics? No. … I don’t see myself as a neutral athlete. In principle, I do not understand the position of the IOC.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 06: Daniil Medvedev celebrates winning match point against Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany in his Gentlemen's Singles third round match during day six of The Championships Wimbledon 2024 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 06, 2024 in London, England. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Daniil Medvedev is one of only a handful of Russians expected to compete in the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The Olympics, for decades, had been a geopolitical platform and source of national pride in Russia. As the conditions for Paris participation came into focus, though, the issue became divisive.

Some sports officials, and even Vladimir Putin, promised to support athletes who’d been training for years with their eyes on the Games. "We should not turn away, close ourselves or boycott this movement," sports minister Oleg Matytsin said. "We should, as much as possible, keep the possibility of dialogue and take part in competitions."

But they also regularly blasted the IOC’s restrictions. Viatcheslav Ekimov, the president of Russia’s cycling federation, called them “humiliating conditions”; Mikhail Mamiashvili, the wrestling federation president, said Russians should respond by “go[ing] to Paris in tanks.”

The rhetoric intensified in March when the IOC revealed the “AIN” flag and neutral anthem that would serenade Russian athletes if they won medals. The IOC also ruled that Russian athletes could not participate in the Opening Ceremony’s Parade of Nations. "This is, of course, the destruction of the idea of Olympism,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said. Russia’s foreign ministry called it "wrongful, unjust and unacceptable.” Some statements personally attacked IOC president Thomas Bach. One Putin adviser even compared the “AIN” flag to the yellow star worn by Jews during the Holocaust.

That, it seemed, was the point of no return, the day the IOC ditched diplomacy and political correctness. IOC spokesman Mark Adams called Russia’s “aggressive” statements “completely unacceptable” and “a new low.” That same week, the IOC also released a lengthy statement denouncing Russia’s “Friendship Games,” an international sports competition organized to rival the Olympics, which, at the time, was slated for September (but has now been postponed to 2025).

This escalation in March accelerated Russia’s split with the Olympic movement. In the background, meanwhile, Russian propagandists waged a multi-faceted campaign to disparage and scare people away from the Paris Games. They flooded social media with disinformation, trying to stoke fears of a terrorist attack. They created a spoofed documentary, starring a deepfake Tom Cruise, called “Olympics Has Fallen,” according to a report from Microsoft Threat Intelligence.

A Russian posing as an African sports official also duped Bach into a phone call, during which an unsuspecting Bach laid out the terms for Russian athletes wishing to compete in Paris. The prankster then published the recording. Russian officials pounced to accuse the IOC of a “criminal conspiracy” with Ukraine — whose government has lobbied all along for Russians to be completely barred from the Games.

With less than three weeks to go until the 2024 Olympics open in Paris, it remains unclear how many Russians will actually participate.

The IOC has set aside at least 47 “quota places” — which were earned by Russian athletes “through the existing qualification competitions” — but not all 47 will be filled.

With the wrestlers withdrawn, as things stood Saturday, there would be at least 14 Russian athletes in Paris — three in road cycling, one in trampoline, six (including world No. 5 Daniil Medvedev) in tennis, two in canoe, up to four in judo, and one in swimming. There would be 16 Belarusians.

But the situation is still fluid. More could be added to the IOC’s approved list over the coming days; or, more could pull out between now and when the Games open July 26.

Although the reasoning behind the IOC’s sanctions has long been clear, Russia’s wrestling federation outlined a stance that many in Russian sport now seem to agree with: “We do not accept the unsportsmanlike selection principle that guided the International Olympic Committee when forming the list of eligible athletes, the purpose of which is to undermine the principle of unity of our team.”