A group of 42 retired Canadian Olympians urged the Canadian Olympic Committee to reject the idea of allowing Russians to participate in next year’s Paris Games unless Russia withdraws from Ukraine.
“We condemn recent public statements issued by the COC supporting the ‘exploration of a pathway’ for Russians and Belarusians to compete as `neutrals’ in the 2024 Paris Olympics,” the Canadians wrote in a statement released Wednesday.
Opening that door, the athletes said, “sends a message that the COC is no longer concerned with Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.”
Signing the statement was a who’s-who of Canadian Olympic greats and gold medallists, including Hayley Wickenheiser (hockey), Jenn Heil and Alex Bilodeau (freestyle skiing), Tessa Virtue (skating) and Beckie Scott (cross-country skiing).
Russian and Belarusian athletes have been largely excluded from international competition since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February. The International Olympic Committee seeks a pathway back for those athletes 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.
“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,” the Canadians wrote.
The COC has walked a fine line in staking out a position. Last month, secretary general David Shoemaker suggested athletes from the banned countries should be made to publicly speak out against the war to gain the neutral status they would need to participate.
Canada’s was also among a group of 35 governments that released a statement last month saying that, without clarity on a workable neutrality model, “we do not agree that Russian and Belarusian athletes should be allowed back into competition.”
Both the COC and the governments have stopped short of stating that Russians should not be allowed.
In their statement, the Canadian Olympians 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,” the statement said.
It also used 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.”
The letter also points out that the war began shortly after last year’s Winter Games in Beijing, which was highlighted by a high-profile meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping before the opening ceremony.
“The Beijing 2022 Games helped set the stage for and dictated the timing of the initial invasion, sports facilities in Ukraine have been targeted by the Russian attacks, and Russian athletes have been elevated to high-ranking military positions and used in war propaganda,” the letter said.
It concluded that “no pathway should be considered” for Russians or Belarusians to compete in Paris until Russia “fully withdraws from Ukraine.”