For our weekly ‘Ideas on Europe’ editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we have the pleasure to welcome again Carmen Pérez González, from the University Carlos Tercero, in Madrid.
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You are the holder of an UNESCO Chair for ‘Education Linkage through International Sports’ and an expert on Sport Diplomacy. As a sports lawyer, how do you analyse the current debate about Russian athletes at the Paris Olympics?
It is true that the IOC – the International Olympic Committee, which was created in Paris by the way – is facing criticism over its intention of exploring the possibilities for allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete at the Paris Olympics. The voices against welcoming them, even if they participate under a white neutral flag or in refugee teams, multiply.
Recently, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has clarified her opposition to the participation of these athletes as long as the war in Ukraine continues. In addition, up to 35 countries seem willing to call for Russian and Belarusian athletes to be banned from the Olympics. The United States, Germany, Australia, the UK and Japan are among them.
These are very important sporting nations!
And it will be no easy debate.
Their position is understandable: it can be argued that there is a profound contradiction between the Olympic values and the participation in mega sporting events of athletes and teams from a country that is so seriously violating international law.
On the other hand, a boycott could be seen as discriminatory. Recently, two UN Human Rights Council Rapporteurs have expressed concerns in this regard, asking the IOC to ensure non-discrimination of any athlete based on their nationality, emphasizing that no athlete should be required to take sides in the conflict.
And what exactly does the IOC say themselves?
The arguments used by the IOC are well-known. In a letter sent at the end of January to the Ukrainian Olympic Committee, IOC president Thomas Bach criticized Ukraine’s threat to boycott the Games, saying it would violate the Olympic charter. No athlete, he added in his letter, should be prevented from competing just because of his/her passport. As I said, these are not new arguments. In fact, the sport movement has always strongly advocated for political neutrality as a fundamental ethical principle.
In reality, what was really surprising, and to some extent contradictory to this position, was that almost immediately after the invasion of Ukraine was launched, the IOC and a growing number of sports associations took measures aimed not only at preventing the organization of international sports competitions in Russian or Belarusian territories but also affecting the participation of athletes of both countries in sporting competitions held worldwide. In the same vein, the Court of Arbitration for Sport dismissed in July 2022 Russian appeals against being banned from FIFA and UEFA competitions.
How can public international law help us solve this issue?
We can start by saying that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seriously violates ‘peremptory international law obligations’. These are rules that protect the most essential interests of the international community as a whole. This is by no means a minor violation of international law. It therefore seems legitimate to call for a reaction from such powerful international actors as the IOC. Let me remind you that in 1985, under the auspices of the United Nations, an international convention against apartheid in sports was adopted, effectively banning South Africa.
So it’s not a new debate.
No, there are precedents. For instance, German and Japanese athletes were banned from the Olympics in 1948 due to their nations’ acts during the 2nd World War. At the same time, on many other occasions the IOC has stayed out of situations involving serious human rights violations by invoking the hackneyed argument of the political neutrality of sport.
In my opinion, the 21st century seems to call for a more decisive response from all actors, public and private, against the most serious violations of international legality. Without underestimating the approach of non-discrimination against athletes, it seems innocent not to take into account that their participation in the Paris Olympics will be exploited by Russia in terms of propaganda. Maybe the time has come to stop playing Putin’s games.
Thank you very much for sharing your analysis with us. I recall you are the UNESCO Chair for Education Linkage through International Sports at the University Carlos Tercero, in Madrid.