By Steve Keating
(Reuters) – The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) continued to walk a tightrope reaffirming its support for Ukraine in its war with Russia on Thursday while leaving the door open for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete at Paris Olympics as neutrals.
Presiding over his first meeting as USOPC president and chair, Gene Sykes began by confronting the issue head-on. He said the body stood with the Ukraine but would listen and consider a process that would allow “truly neutral” athletes from Russia and Belarus to take part in next year’s Summer Games.
“The one topic I want to address directly is the question of Russian athletes in international sports and potentially in the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris,” said Sykes.
“Although the conversation has shifted over time, our position has not. Above all else we stand in solidarity with the people and athletes of Ukraine.”
Ukraine has spearheaded a call to ban all athletes from Russia and Belarus, which has been used as a staging ground for what Russia terms a special operation, after the IOC in January said it was open to including them as neutrals. The IOC also set out a pathway for the neutrals to qualify for the Paris Games.
The USOPC’s main concern is how will the IOC determine the criteria for a neutral athlete and until then wants sanctions to remain in place.
“We encourage the IOC to continue exploring the process that would preserve the existing sanctions, ensuring only truly neutral athletes who are clean are welcome to compete,” said Sykes.
“Only if these conditions of neutrality and fair, clean competition can be met do we believe that the spirit of the Olympic Games can prevail.
“What will neutrality really mean, what will the conditions for neutrality be?”
Sykes said the feedback the USOPC has been getting from athletes, sports and others is that there is a desire to have all the best athletes in every event competing in Paris.
But again emphasised any Russian and Belarusian participation would come with conditions.
“We’ve listened to and continue to gather feedback from athletes, sports and other constituents around the United States,” said Sykes.
“Many have told us it is their 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.
“There is a very real concern and even scepticism about whether that condition can be met.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Pritha Sarkar)