Olympics-Games cannot exclude and divide says IOC amid Russian athletes row

BERLIN (Reuters) – The Olympics cannot be divisive and exclude athletes, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said on Wednesday, defending its plan to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to qualify for the Paris 2024 summer Olympics.

In a statement to mark the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on Feb. 24 last year, the IOC said the Games had a unifying character that promoted peace.

The Olympic body is facing a mounting backlash after setting out a path last month for athletes of both Russia and Belarus to earn slots for the Olympics through Asian qualifying and to compete as neutrals, with no flags or anthems.

Athletes from those countries were banned from many international competitions in after Russia launched what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine, but some international federations are now allowing them back following the IOC guidance.

“The Olympic Games cannot prevent wars and conflicts. Nor can they address all the political and social challenges in our world,” the IOC said in its statement.

“This is the realm of politics. But the Olympic Games can set an example for a world where everyone respects the same rules and one another.”

“They can open the door to dialogue and peace-building in ways that exclusion and division do not.”

Ukraine and its Eastern European and Baltic neighbours are leading the call for Russian and Belarusian athletes to be banned from Paris as long as Russia’s troops maintain their invasion of Ukraine, which Belarus helped facilitate.

On Monday, more than 30 countries including the United States, Britain and France pledged their support for banning Russian and Belarusian athletes from international competitions.

Ukraine has also threatened to boycott the Olympics over Russia’s participation.

“Our mission has always been to promote peace through sport. The IOC remains committed to this mission to unite the entire world in peaceful competition to this day,” the IOC said.

“Peace-building efforts need dialogue. A competition with athletes who respect the Olympic Charter can serve as a catalyst for dialogue, which is always a first step to achieving peace.”

(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Robert Birsel)