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Canada’s sport minister and the Canadian Olympic Committee have restated that Russia and Belarus should be excluded from the next Olympics, but differ on if athletes from those countries could be allowed to compete under a neutral flag.

Pascale St-Onge and the COC issued separate statements on Thursday in response to an open letter signed by 42 retired Canadian Olympians the day before. The letter urges the COC to not allow Russian or Belarusian athletes to compete under a neutral flag at the 2024 Paris Games.

Russian and Belarusian athletes were banned from international competition following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, which Belarus has supported.

“I’ve had many conversations with the COC. Their current position – and it’s our government’s position as well – is that there’s no reason to review the ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes at this point because the war is still ongoing, and we don’t see a path forward to neutrality,” St-Onge said. “So our position is clear.”

Hours later, the COC issued a statement in response to the retired Olympians, noting that it had offered to host a special meeting with its board of directors and the letters’ signatories to have a dialogue about the war in Ukraine. The COC says its requests for dialogue, which began in early February, have been rejected thus far.

The International Olympic Committee seeks a pathway back for those athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete without officially representing their countries, citing human-rights experts who argue the athletes should not be discriminated against solely because of their passports.

The Canadian athletes reject this idea.

“Refusing their participation in international sport is not simply a matter of denying athletes a choice to compete because of their passport, it is a rejection of an unlawful and inhumane war and a recognition of the role international sports plays in geopolitics,” wrote the letters signatories, which include Hayley Wickenheiser, Jenn Heil and Alex Bilodeau, Tessa Virtue and Beckie Scott.

The athletes’ letter said a requirement for Russians to declare opposition to the war is “unfounded and out of touch.”

“For example, it is illegal in Russia to publicly denounce military actions abroad, and virtually impossible for high-profile athletes to oppose the war,” their statement read.

They also pointed to instances in 2018 and 2021 when Russians could compete not under their country’s flag – but instead under the titles of “Olympic Athletes from Russia” and “Russian Olympic Committee” due to doping sanctions – as examples of how “separation of athlete from state is an impossible task.”

St-Onge agreed with the former Olympians on that point.

“The models that were proposed previously by the IOC in regards to neutrality, whether it was because of drug use by Russian athletes, has never worked,” she said. “So we don’t see how they can have a better proposal.

“We don’t see the reintegration of Russia and Belarus as something possible.”

The COC, however, is still open to the possibility of a neutral path.

“Our position, consistent over the past year, is that we support the exclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes from international sport while the invasion is ongoing,” said part of the COC’s statement.

“This is aligned with the recent statement, signed by Canada and more than 30 other nations, that call for the continuation of the ban in the absence of clarity and concrete details on a workable neutrality model.”