The International Olympic Committee has declined to curtail Israel’s involvement in the 2024 games and has placed half-hearted limits on Russia. The IOC claims it opposes the politicization of sport — but the Olympics are a historically political institution.
The Olympic rings are unveiled in front of the Eiffel Tower after the official announcement of the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. (Chesnot / Getty Images)
The Paris 2024 Summer Olympics, slated to start in less than two hundred days, will be set against a backdrop of controversy and war. Two invasions — one carried out by Russia against Ukraine and the other by Israel against Palestinians — have thrown a spotlight on the double standards of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Switzerland-based nonprofit that oversees the Games.
Last fall, the IOC announced it would ban the Russian Olympic Committee from attending the Paris Games. However, it stopped short of blocking the participation of Russian athletes — something the IOC has done in the past, in cases like apartheid South Africa. Some Russian athletes would be able to participate in Paris, it said, but as neutrals without the Russian flag or national anthem.
The IOC based its decision on two factors: Russia’s obliteration of the Olympic Truce — a nonbinding, United Nations resolution nudging countries to avoid war during the Games — and its abrogation of the Olympic Charter when it violated the territorial integrity of the national Olympic committee of Ukraine by taking over “regional sports organizations which are under the authority of the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine.”
The IOC’s decision on Russia raises two questions. First, why is Russia not subject to complete sanction? And second, what about Israel, which is three and a half months into its assault on Gaza?
In November, an IOC spokesperson insisted that Russia presented “a unique situation and cannot be compared to any other war or conflict in the world.” The statement beggars belief. Both Russia and Israel are engaged in asymmetrical warfare, attacking civic infrastructure and private residences and leaving a long trail of civilian deaths and casualties. And as in Ukraine, sports in Palestine have suffered heavily. According to the Palestinian Football Association, Israeli forces have killed dozens of top-level athletes and sports administrators in Gaza, including Palestinian Olympic soccer coach Hani Al-Masdar and a prominent soccer player in the West Bank, Ahmed Daraghmeh. Israeli troops converted Gaza’s historic Yarmouk soccer stadium into an internment and “interrogation” camp for Palestinian detainees.
The IOC has remained conspicuously silent amid the carnage. Israel is literally killing Olympic coaches and seizing sports grounds — and yet there are no repercussions.
Olympic barons have long hidden behind the flimsy fiction that the Olympics are not political. More recently, they have modified their messaging, with IOC president Thomas Bach stating, “We must be politically neutral but not apolitical. . . . We know well that our decisions have political implications and we have to include that in our thinking.”
Israel is literally killing Olympic coaches and seizing sports grounds — and yet there are no repercussions.
But the IOC’s proclaimed neutrality serves an obvious political function: assuaging big players in the Olympic Movement. That includes Russia, which the IOC has made a major effort to include even as it sets restrictions on the form of its athletes’ participation. It also includes Israel, a country fully backed by another Olympic behemoth, the United States. At all costs, IOC president Thomas Bach does not want to offend the United States, which is scheduled to host the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and is all but certain to host the 2034 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
There is no moral rationale undergirding the IOC’s hypocrisy when it comes to Israel and Russia. There is not even any subtext regarding the relative justifications of Russia’s and Israel’s actions. There is just the IOC, doing the bidding of the US — which means bending over backward for Israel.
IOC president Bach had a word for those attempting to keep Russian athletes out of the 2024 Olympics in Paris: “deplorable.” Speaking last year at the conclusion of a three-day IOC executive board meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, Bach lashed out at those who view Russian participation in Paris as a gross violation of the Olympic spirit.
That, apparently, includes Olympians like Ukrainian Vladyslav Heraskevych. After he completed the skeleton event at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, he held a placard that read “No War in Ukraine.” Less than two weeks later, Russia invaded. Heraskevych remains outspoken against the war, and he believes Russian athletes should be banned from the Paris 2024 Olympics.
The IOC, on the other hand, wants Olympians from Russia and Belarus to compete as neutral athletes under the Olympic flag. The IOC insists that “the autonomy of sport” must be protected. Increasingly the IOC is using the phrase “the autonomy of sport” to argue that sport transcends politics. Although the Olympic Charter touts “social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles,” the IOC has, nonetheless, scythed a path for Russians to participate in Paris. Heraskevych told us, “I personally consider it unacceptable to try to wrap such decisions in Olympic values and peaceful movement.”
In an effort to placate Russia while also assuaging its critics, the IOC announced last summer that individual athletes can still participate as independents, depending on the patchwork of rules created by the international sport federations that oversee the thirty-two-sport Paris program. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo strongly disagreed, stating, “As long as Russia continues to wage war on Ukraine, I don’t want there to be a Russian delegation at the Paris 2024 Games. I would find that indecent.” The participation of Israeli athletes, however, has not caused a similar outcry. For major players in the Olympic sphere, what is happening in Gaza apparently does not rise to the level of “indecency” — which, given the level of human suffering, speaks to the double standards at work.
The IOC’s flip-flopping has made it look feckless. After Russia invaded Ukraine — only four days after the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics concluded and before the Paralympics commenced — the IOC condemned Russia for breaking the Olympic Truce, a nonbinding resolution that the UN General Assembly has regularly passed since the mid-1990s. The Truce extends from seven days before the Olympics open to seven days after the Games conclude.
For major players in the Olympic sphere, what is happening in Gaza apparently does not rise to the level of ‘indecency’ — which speaks to the double standards at work.
Initially, IOC vice president John Coates said Russia had “lost their right to membership of the international Olympic community.” In July 2022, Bach posed for photos with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and praised Ukraine’s “grit.” But a year later, with Olympic qualification events underway, the IOC flipped the script so that Russian athletes could qualify for the Paris Games.
The IOC’s executive board recommended excluding all Russian athletes who have spent time in the army. In theory, this would bar many Russian athletes: at the Tokyo 2020 Games, Olympians linked to the army’s Central Sports Club claimed 63 percent of Russia’s seventy-one medals. But in practice, Bach has carved out a path for participation. First, he said, “The blanket prohibition of Russian and Belarusian athletes . . . is a flagrant violation of human rights. Anyone has the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their passport.” Then, Bach said that so long as Russian athletes neither publicly supported the invasion of Ukraine nor actively worked with the military or national security agencies, they should be allowed to compete.
Meanwhile Israeli athletes — who also do mandatory military service — are blithely competing with no threats hanging over their heads.
Bach’s attempt to balance reality with the IOC’s stance against “politics” being brought into the Games has deep roots in the modern Olympic movement.
The French baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee in 1894 and packed it with fellow aristocrats. Even today, the organization retains an aristocratic tinge: nearly a dozen of the IOC’s 106 members are princes, princesses, lords, barons, and sheikhs. From the beginning, members claimed to eschew politics, insisting that the Olympics existed beyond such mundanities, and Bach has kept up the tradition. In his 2020 New Year’s address, he stated, “We stand firmly against the growing politicization of sport,” adding, “As history has shown, such politicization of sport leads to no result and in the end just deepens existing divisions.”
But countries have often been excluded from the Olympics because of their involvement in war. After World War I, Belgium, the Olympic host in 1920, did not want to invite geopolitical foes Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Turkey. IOC president Coubertin objected but ultimately allowed organizers in Antwerp to block athletes from the Central Powers. Germany would not return to the Olympics until 1928. Then in 1948, after World War II, Olympic organizers in London did not invite Japan or Germany. Again, the IOC lodged its objections, though it yielded to the local organizing committee in the end.
The Olympics remain the most expansive yet least accountable sports infrastructure on the planet.
The IOC has itself banned countries, as when, under immense global pressure from activists and advocates, it withdrew South Africa’s invitation to participate in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The IOC also withdrew the apartheid nation’s invitation to the 1968 Games in Mexico City after thirty-nine countries promised to boycott the Games if South Africa were allowed back in. In 1970, the IOC expelled South Africa from the Olympics, and the country did not return until 1992 when the Nelson Mandela–supported mixed-race squad participated in Barcelona. More recently, the IOC banned Afghanistan from the 2000 Sydney Olympics because the Taliban barred women from competing in sports.
But this time, while Paris mayor Hidalgo has said she is not keen for Russian participation in her city, it may not matter. French president Emmanuel Macron has sat zip-lipped even after meeting with Zelensky, who insisted that Russians should not be allowed to attend the Games. Macron’s spokesperson suggested that it was the IOC’s decision to make, a point echoed by Paris 2024 Olympics head Tony Estanguet.
Macron and Estanguet are technically correct. The Olympic Charter states, “The invitations to take part in the Olympic Games shall be sent out by the IOC to all NOCs one year before the opening ceremony.” When it comes to inviting participants, whatever the IOC says goes — no explanation required: “Any entry is subject to acceptance by the IOC, which may at its discretion, at any time, refuse any entry, without indication of grounds.” The Palestine Olympic Committee is officially recognized by the IOC. But so far, recognition has not meant protection.
The Olympics remain the most expansive yet least accountable sports infrastructure on the planet. The IOC is demonstrating pathological neutrality, and the powerful Olympic barons are again squandering a chance to show an ethical backbone. The IOC’s actions raise the question: Is there anything Russia or Israel could do that would get them banned from the Paris Games?
“Olympic Power Couples”
Putin and many Russian leaders before him have used the Olympics to flex their political muscles, pointing to Olympic success as evidence of the country’s power and prowess.
Putin spared no expense to host the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. While the Games were criticized for its $51 billion price tag — more than the cost for all the previous Winter Games combined — domestically, the Games were about more than money. Sven Daniel Wolfe, a professor and Russia specialist at the University of Zurich, noted that hosting the 2014 Olympics provided Russia an opportunity to solidify a sense of “Russian-ness” amid competing notions that had been circulating since the fall of the Soviet Union.
In the wake of the Sochi Games, Putin’s popularity skyrocketed to an all-time high of nearly 86 percent. Part of this spike in popularity is linked to the fact that after the Olympics ended and before the Paralympics began, Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula and subsequently annexed it from Ukraine. The IOC kept quiet when the Olympic Truce was broken, demonstrating its selective ethics. (We wrote at the time, “The Olympic Truce is like a unicorn bought with a bucket of Bitcoin. Just because you believe in it, doesn’t make it real.”)
And while recent relations between Russia and the IOC have been rocky, let’s not forget that the Guardian’s Owen Gibson once anointed Putin and Bach the “Olympic power couple.” According to Gibson, Putin’s support may have been a key factor in Bach getting the IOC presidency. When Bach was elected in 2013, Putin was the first person to congratulate him.
Zelensky is aware of the IOC’s pivotal role in all this. In February, he said, “The International Olympic Committee needs honesty,” but added, “honesty it has unfortunately lost.”
The idea of the Olympic show going on while the bodies pile up is unacceptable.
If the IOC allows Russian and Israeli athletes to compete in Paris, it will be an insult to Ukrainians and Palestinians who have lost family, friends, livelihoods to brutal invasions. It will be an inversion of the IOC’s goal, articulated in the Olympic Charter, “to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
The IOC is guided by a paradox: It states it is against “politics,” but that is often an excuse for the IOC to act without a moral compass when dealing with autocracies and apartheid states. It takes profound international pressure to get them to take any action.
When we asked Heraskevych whether he could envision Ukrainian athletes boycotting future Olympics over the IOC’s inclusion of Russia, he responded, “Yes, this is a possible option, although it is extremely undesirable for us.” He added, “But if the people who are responsible for this war . . . are allowed into the Olympic Games, then we will be forced to make difficult decisions.”
The IOC, if it acted against Russia, would no doubt be accused of profound hypocrisy. There are many countries over the decades — such as the United States during the Vietnam War or the Iraq War — that deserved sanction and exclusion from the Olympics, but the IOC remained silent. To penalize Russia, they will argue, is nothing more than a double standard: US foreign policy wrapped in Olympic bunting.
With Kharkiv and Gaza under siege, that is not the immediate question, however. The pressing issue is solidarity with Ukraine and Palestine. It’s about the principle that countries invading sovereign nations should have no place in the “community of nations.” It’s about standing up to Russia and Israel because, whether the Olympic athlete wants it or not, their success would be folded into nationalism and the war effort. The spineless IOC is not going to do it. Politicians may use the issue to grandstand, but they won’t threaten boycotts or truly hold the IOC accountable. Like in decades past when activists and solidarity networks pressured the IOC to live up to its own lofty principles, any Olympic resistance to Russia or Israel will require a grassroots movement — and make no mistake about it, one is being built by a coalition of more than three hundred Palestinian sports groups, civil-society organizations, and their allies.
We should demand consistency and accountability from the IOC. Now is the time for the group to abide by its own stated standards. Russia, in the name of Ukraine, has no place in the Games. Israel, in the name of Gaza, has no place in the Games.
The question arises, “What about the United States and its imperial adventures? Why single out Russia and Israel?” Although this is a conversation we’ve long been willing to have, the answer is immediacy. A looming genocide has settled over Gaza, with twenty-five thousand dead, two-thirds of whom are women and children, and the planned displacement of two million people. Ukraine, off the US news cycle, continues to be barraged by Russia. The idea of the Olympic show going on while the bodies pile up is unacceptable. We don’t need double standards. We need consistent condemnation. We need solidarity.Original post