By Andrew Das and Tariq Panja
Individual athletes from Russia and Belarus who qualify for next summer’s Paris Olympics will be allowed to compete in the Games, the International Olympic Committee announced Friday, ending talk of a blanket ban on competitors from the two nations over the war in Ukraine.
The athletes will be allowed to take part only as “individual neutral athletes” and under other strict conditions, Olympic officials said. Disqualifying actions include active support for the war in Ukraine or personal contracts with Russian or Belarusian military or national security agencies.
The open door may prove a narrow one: The Olympic committee’s decision specified that, to compete in Paris, athletes from Russia and Belarus first must qualify “through the existing qualification systems” of their particular sports — effectively deferring the call on eligibility to the differing rules of dozens of international sports federations.
At least one such organization, the track and field governing body World Athletics, said Friday that its rules, which currently exclude Russian and Belorusian athletes from all competitions, including Olympic qualifiers, would remain unchanged.
The new rules, announced by the Olympic committee’s executive board, were not unexpected. They mirror the guidance that the IOC released in March, when Olympic officials — under pressure from international sports federations whose qualifying procedures for Paris were beginning or already underway — created a path for the Russian and Belorusian athletes to return to international competition.
The decision applies only to individual competitors and support staff members, meaning teams representing the two nations remain ineligible.
The participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus, which has been an ally and supporter of Russia’s military efforts in Ukraine, has been a contentious issue in global sports since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Athletes from both nations were initially barred from most sports in the wake of the invasion.
In the last year, though, Olympic officials have laid the groundwork for their return to competition in time for the Paris Games, under the premise that individual athletes should not be held responsible for the actions of their governments.
In March, the IOC created a path through which those athletes could potentially qualify for Paris — even as their countries remained officially barred — by issuing a suite of recommendations to international sports federations that allowed Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in events as neutrals.
And last month in New York, IOC President Thomas Bach used the adoption of a biennial Olympic truce as a platform to argue for inclusion.
“In these difficult times,” Bach said, “this resolution is our opportunity to send an unequivocal signal to the world: Yes, we can come together, even in times of wars and crises. Yes, we can join hands and work together for a better future.”
The IOC’s efforts to ease the bans on competitors from Russia and Belarus have met significant resistance. In February, a group of sports ministers and government officials from more than 30 countries, including representatives of some of the most prominent countries in the Olympic movement, urged the IOC to bar athletes from Russia and Belarus from international sports as long as their countries were engaged in the war in Ukraine.
In announcing Friday’s decision, Olympic officials took pains to point out that the effect of Friday’s decision was, to date, limited in scope: Only 11 affected athletes — eight with Russian passports and three from Belarus — are among the 4,600 who have qualified for the Paris Games, officials said. (At least 60 Ukrainians, they noted, have qualified so far.) Russia sent a team of more than 300 athletes to the last Summer Games, in Tokyo in 2021, but without entries in team sports its delegation is expected to number in the dozens in Paris.
Each of the 11 affected athletes will be subject to an “independent evaluation” of their eligibility, the IOC said. More are expected to qualify in the months to come, but because the rules of international sports federations remained the final say on which individual athletes are even eligible to attempt to qualify, the IOC acknowledged those numbers could be small. “Only a very limited number of athletes will qualify through the existing qualification systems,” it said.
Friday’s decision is sure to anger dozens of national Olympic committees, including those of the United States and other powers in the Olympic movement, who have previously objected to the participation of athletes from Russia and also Belarus, which has provided a staging ground for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It also could reignite talk of a boycott by Ukraine, whose officials have opposed the participation of Russian athletes even as neutrals and have previously threatened to stay away from the Paris Games if Russians are allowed to take part.