(Reuters) – The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) is unequivocal in its support of Ukraine but will listen to any International Olympic Committee (IOC) plan to have Russian and Belarusian athletes compete as neutrals at the 2024 Paris Games.
With the Olympics just a little over a year away pressure is mounting on the IOC, sporting federations, national Olympic committees and governments to make a call on the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes at the Paris Games.
The IOC sanctioned Russia and its ally Belarus after Moscow invaded Ukraine in February 2022 but earlier this year recommended that their athletes be allowed to return to international competition as neutrals.
USOPC chair Gene Sykes has repeatedly maintained that it stands with Ukraine but will consider any plan put out by the IOC which last week said it has plenty of time to make a decision on Russian participation.
There are mounting concerns that if Russian athletes are cleared to compete in Paris, even as neutrals, it could spark a Ukraine-led boycott of the Games.
“We believe there are lots of challenges to making sure we support the Olympic values and support the athletes at the same time,” Sykes said during a conference call on Monday.
“We’ve been quite measured and willing to give the IOC the opportunity to explore the possibility, understanding how Russian or Belarusian athletes who are neutral, truly neutral, could compete in international competition.
“That has been our approach so far, making sure we are watching carefully and constructively engaging with the IOC to share our view.”
Many international federations have included Russian and Belarusian athletes who can compete with no flag or anthem, while athletes who support the war or are contracted to military or national security agencies are excluded.
That does not include the Paris Olympics with a separate decision still to be taken by the IOC.
The thorny issue to such a plan is determining which athletes are truly neutral.
The USOPC said that independent organisations like Sportradar are providing input and background checks and making that information available to federations.
“Though the broader conversation related to (Russian) participation has shifted over time our position has not,” said Sykes. “Above all else we stand in solidarity with the people and athletes of Ukraine.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)