A group of 35 countries, including the United States, Germany and Australia, will demand that Russian and Belarusian athletes are banned from the 2024 Olympics, the Lithuanian sports minister said on Friday, deepening the uncertainty over the Paris Games.
The move cranks up the pressure on an International Olympic Committee (IOC) that is desperate to avoid the sporting event being torn asunder by the bloody conflict unfolding in Ukraine.
“We are going in the direction that we would not need a boycott because all countries are unanimous,” Jurgita Siugzdiniene said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy took part in the online meeting attended by 35 ministers to discuss the call for the ban, pointing out 228 Ukrainian athletes and coaches died as a result of the Russian aggression.
“If there’s an Olympics sport with killings and missile strikes, you know which national team would take the first place,” he told the ministers.
“Terror and Olympism are two opposites, they cannot be combined.”
British sports minister Lucy Frazer said on Twitter that the meeting was very productive.
“I made the UK’s position very clear: As long as Putin continues his barbaric war, Russia and Belarus must not be represented at the Olympics,” she wrote.
Lee Satterfield, Assistant Secretary of State who leads the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, also participated in the meeting.
“The Assistant Secretary outlined that the United States will continue to join a vast community of nations in our unwavering support for the people of Ukraine and hold the Russian Federation accountable for its brutal and barbaric war against Ukraine, as well as the complicit Lukashenka regime in Belarus,” a U.S. Department of State spokesperson said.
“We will continue to consult with our independent National Olympic Committee – the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee – on next steps, and look forward to greater clarity by the IOC on their proposed policy toward Russia and Belarus.”
Russia launched a wave of attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure in the cities of Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia on Friday morning as Ukrainian officials said a long-awaited Russian offensive was under way in the east.
“We know that 70% of Russian athletes are soldiers. I consider it unacceptable that such people participate in the Olympic Games in the current situation, when fair play obviously means nothing to them,” Czech foreign minister Jan Lipavsky said after meeting the heads of the Czech IOC and the national sports agency.
Ukraine has threatened to boycott the games if Russian and Belarusian athletes compete and Ukrainian boxer Oleksandr Usyk has said Russians will win “medals of blood, deaths and tears” if allowed to take part.
Such threats have revived memories of boycotts in the 1970s and 1980s during the Cold War era that still haunt the global Olympic body today, and it has called on Ukraine to drop them.
However, Polish Sports Minister Kamil Bortniczuk said that a boycott was not on the table for now.
“It’s not time to talk about a boycott yet,” he told a news conference, saying there were other ways of putting pressure on the IOC that could be explored first.
He said that most participants had been in favour of an absolute exclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes.
“Most voices – with the exception of Greece, France, Japan – were exactly in this tone,” he said.
He said that creating a team of refugees that would include Russian and Belarusian dissidents could be a compromise solution.
The IOC has opened the door for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as neutrals.
It has said a boycott will violate the Olympic Charter and that its inclusion of Russians and Belarusians is based on a UN resolution against discrimination within the Olympic movement.
Anette Trettebergstuen, Norway’s Minister of Culture and Equality, also said it was “far too early” to think about a boycott but added that it was “strange and provocative” for the IOC to consider allowing Russian athletes to compete.
“In a Russian context, there is no difference between sport and politics, and any sports performance is pure propaganda,” Trettebergstuen told Norwegian newspaper VG.
“Saying the athletes should be able to compete as neutrals… Neutrality is not possible. It’s a dead end.”
Some 18 months before the competition is due to start, the IOC is desperate to calm the waters so as not to jeopardize the Games’ message of global peace and deliver a huge hit to income.
While Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of host city Paris, said Russian athletes should not take part, Paris 2024 organisers, who last week said they would abide by the IOC’s decision on who would take part in the Games, declined to comment.
The Russian sports ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment. An IOC spokesperson said they would not comment “on interpretations from individual participants of a meeting whose overall content is unknown”.