We swung by the Blue Light on the way home on Thursday evening, agreeing in this hour of need and want that whatever was done of dry January had already served its purpose. Time out of mind.
Besides there were pressing matters to debate and sometimes best gauged in a bar room of friends who haven’t yet met. It may be early days, still it’s easy to see without looking too far that given the statements coming out of Lausanne this week, on top of the pictures coming out of Melbourne, there’s now a clear and present danger of another tried and untrusted Olympic boycott.
It’s not always a dirty word – and trace the boycott trail over the long course of Olympic history and there have been some occasionally happy endings. Just not near as many as those sad and sorry, and ultimately futile, finger-pointing exercises.
Hints of this one had been coming, promptly realised on Wednesday when the old guard at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) declared their intent to reinstate athletes from Russia and Belarus ahead of next year’s Paris Olympics, despite Russia’s continuing unlawful invasion of Ukraine, and repeated calls from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy to deny them any such representation at the Games.
According to the IOC “the vast majority of participants” in consultation calls want a pathway for Russia and Belarus to return to the international stage, beginning with the Paris qualification events, all the while competing as “neutral athletes”. We all know what that doesn’t mean.
Zelenskiy had just addressed the issue on Tuesday after speaking with French president Emmanuel Macron, a strong supporter of the Paris bid back in 2017: “I particularly emphasized that athletes from Russia should have no place at the Olympic Games in Paris,” Zelenskiy wrote on his Telegram account after his talks with Macron.
In prompt response a statement from the Ukrainian Athletes and Global Athlete commissions was adamant “the IOC is strengthening Russia’s propaganda machine, empowering the Putin regime, and undermining peace”, and that “every Russian athlete competing in Paris has the potential to incite further lives lost in Ukraine”.
The IOC insist they will continue their commitment to solidarity with the Ukrainian athletes, only now they want them to compete alongside their worst enemies, without hope of any truce or ceasefire in sight. They can’t have it both ways, which likely means it’s either the Russians or the Ukrainians, and who supports them, who will be in Paris.
This pending conflict lands at a bad time for the Paris organisers – gleefully flagging Tuesday’s registration deadline for anyone interested in purchasing an Olympic ticket. Just look at the numbers: 10,500 athletes, 10 million tickets available worldwide, across the 32 sports and 48 disciplines, over 750 sessions, for the 37 competition venues in and around Paris and France.
Part of the IOC deal in welcoming Russia and Belarus back to Paris is that no flag, anthem, colours or any other identifications whatsoever of these countries be displayed at any sports event or meeting, including the entire venue. That’s a lot of venues to police.
The Australian Open said the same in allowing players from Russia and Belarus on their courts, and look what happened there: around the same time as the IOC statement, pictures emerged of police intervening with a crowd of supporters at Melbourne Park after Russian Andrey Rublev’s quarter-final defeat against Serbia’s Novak Djokovic.
Among them was Srdjan Djokovic, his father, unwittingly he says standing alongside a Russian flag with the face of Vladimir Putin before saying: “Long live the Russians.” All naturally condemned by Vasyl Myroshnychenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to Australia. “It’s a full package,” Myroshnychenko wrote on social media. “Among the Serbian flags, there is: a Russian flag, Putin, Z-symbol, so-called Donetsk People’s Republic flag. It’s such a disgrace.”
The IOC may be confident the vast Olympic stages will be free from such carry-on, safe from say another Ivan Kuliak incident, the Russian gymnast whose patriotic fervour led him to tape the letter “Z” to the front of his outfit before standing on the podium at an event last March, next to a winner who just happened to be Ukrainian.
They also insist all “neutral” Russian athletes must be entirely in line with all relevant anti-doping rules, which they said before Rio too: that didn’t stop Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova, who wasn’t supposed to be let anywhere near the Olympic pool, given she was serving a doping ban, only to have it appealed at the last minute.
Efimova ultimately denied Irish swimmer Fiona Doyle a place in the 100m breaststroke final, ending her 12-year dream in the process: “Cheaters are cheaters,” Doyle told us that morning, in one of the most heartbreaking Olympic interviews I’ve known. “She [Efimova] has tested positive five times and she’s gotten away with it again. It’s like Fina keep going back on their word, and the IOC keep going back on their word. And Fina caved in to [Vladimir] Putin, and that’s just not fair on the rest of the athletes who are clean.”
In a particularly galling footnote, the IOC also reference the situation regarding the participation of “neutral” athletes from the former Yugoslavia at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, even when there were United Nations sanctions in place against the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
As if to say they’re not in the business of denying entire nations of athletes on purely political grounds, when on numerous occasions in the past they’ve done exactly that – namely South Africa, banned after the 1960 Olympics due to its Apartheid regime, only allowed back in for Barcelona in 1992, other countries banned temporarily, too, after their World War defeats, Afghanistan also banned as recently as 2000 given their Taliban regime.
As with war there will always be casualties in any Olympic boycott: Ireland remember was one of the first countries to go down this route, boycotting the 1936 Olympics in Berlin in solidarity with the then Irish athletics body the NACAI, suspended by the IAAF a year earlier for refusing to recognise the political border and insist instead on a 32-county representation.
This likely cost Dr Pat O’Callaghan a third successive Olympic gold medal in the hammer, only in hindsight and all the shame around Hitler’s Games did it hold some truth and value.
For now, the more the IOC insist on welcoming back Russia and Belarus, the more likely it is Ukraine will turn the other way. And if they do call a boycott, and others follow, at what point do the IOC, and Macron for that matter, side with Ukraine? The easy solution is to ensure there is no way for the Russians to be let anywhere near Paris.