New U.S. Olympic head cautiously endorses allowing Russians to compete as neutrals

Click to play video: 'Zelenskyy calls for Olympics ban on Russian athletes amid ‘terror’ in Ukraine'
Zelenskyy calls for Olympics ban on Russian athletes amid ‘terror’ in Ukraine
WATCH: Zelenskyy calls for Olympics ban on Russian athletes amid 'terror' in Ukraine – Jan 30, 2023

The new leader of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee reiterated the federation’s support for exploring a way for Russian athletes to compete at the Paris Olympics as neutrals, while insisting the current sanctions against the country remain in place.

Gene Sykes, who took over for Susanne Lyons as USOPC chair on Jan. 1, wrote a letter to athletes and other U.S. stakeholders last week after the International Olympic Committee announced it was moving forward in trying to craft a way for some Russians to compete. They have been banned from most major international competitions since the country invaded Ukraine last February.

“After listening to many athletes and constituents from around the United States, we recognize a real desire to compete against all the world’s best athletes — but only if that can happen in a way that ensures safe and fair play,” Sykes wrote in his letter, which was obtained by The Associated Press.

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The USOPC was involved in meetings in December in which the IOC first outlined the idea for Russians to participate as neutrals. The IOC emphasized that it doesn’t want Russians to be penalized simply for where they are from, but nor does it want athletes who have supported the war to be included.

Shortly after the December meeting, Lyons said the USOPC had signed off on the plan, though she expressed skepticism that the IOC would be able to create a system to determine who among the hundreds of Russian athletes had been supporting or speaking out against the war.

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Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has lobbied French President Emmanuel Macron to not allow Russians at the Paris Games. Zelenskyy used a recent nightly address to the nation to insist that Russian athletes should not be allowed to participate.

Sykes acknowledged in his letter that the USOPC remains in solidarity with Ukraine and its athletes, and expressed “very real concern, even skepticism, about whether (conditions) can be met” to allow Russians in.

“As such, we encouraged the IOC to continue exploring a process that would preserve the existing sanctions, ensuring only neutral athletes who are clean are welcome to compete,” Sykes wrote. “This process will require careful management and will demand extra efforts to earn the confidence and trust of our community.”

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Sykes’ letter, sent last Thursday, came as more countries are lashing out against framework the IOC is considering, which would call for some athletes from Russia and Belarus to be allowed to compete provided there is no representation of their country’s flags, colors or anthems.

Click to play video: 'Russia, Belarus can compete as neutral at Paralympics in Beijing: IPC'
Russia, Belarus can compete as neutral at Paralympics in Beijing: IPC

On Wednesday, the Korean Olympic committee said it wanted further clarification from Asia’s top sports organizing committee, which has invited Russia to compete in Olympic qualifiers this year — a move that would remove Russia from its usual spot in European qualifying events and could also cost South Koreans spots in the games.

The day before, Canadian Olympic Committee CEO David Shoemaker said “this whole situation will look very different if the war is still going on in 18 months.”

In responding to the IOC announcement last week, Britain’s culture secretary, Michelle Donelan, said, “I want to be clear that this position from the IOC is a world away from the reality of war being felt by the Ukrainian people.”

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Leaders in Latvia have threatened to boycott the Olympics if Russia is allowed. Meanwhile, when the head of Russia’s Olympic committee sounded an optimistic tone about his country possibly getting some athletes to Paris, the IOC reacted strongly with a statement that “the sanctions against the Russian and Belarusian states and governments are not negotiable.”

In his letter, Sykes conceded this was an “incredibly complex situation,” and that media coverage of it has been confusing.

“If these conditions of neutrality and safe, clean, and fair competition can be met, we believe the spirit of the Olympic and Paralympic Games can prevail. This will continue to be our guiding focus,” he wrote.

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