IOC boss Bach insists on neutrality of sport – DW – 03/23/2023

It was a silent protest. Around 160 Ukrainians and their supporters gathered in front of the Philharmonie in Essen on Wednesday evening to express their anger and despair at the recent talks in the International Olympic Committee (IOC). “Terrorist Putin” was the message on a sign held by a protester. Another sign read: “Do not allow Russia and Belarus to go to the Olympics.”

The reason for the demonstration in Essen was the visit of IOC President Thomas Bach, who was invited to a political forum to present his view of the global political situation from a sporting point of view. The IOC is apparently formulating plans to allow athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete in the Paris 2024 Olympic Games under neutral flags.

Before the event at the Essen venue, Bach met with two representatives of the demonstrators. Former professional footballer Igor Denysiuk, who represented the Ukrainian-German club Opora, expressed frustration after the ten-minute meeting. According to Denysiuk, when asked to exclude Russia and Belarus from the Olympics, Bach said that the IOC could not do anything about participation if the United Nations did not oppose it.

Bach sees a “natural tension”

The discussions in Essen focused on the question of whether sport can be non-political. The demonstrating Ukrainians had a clear opinion on this. “We want the IOC to stop promoting and tolerating war,” 23-year-old Ukrainian Yana Koval told DW. “That’s what she does when she lets Russian and Belarusian athletes compete under neutral flags. Russian politicians use that for their propaganda.”

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IOC President Thomas Bach speaks at a policy forum in Essen about the tension between sport and politics.Image: Jana Rodenbusch/REUTERS

Bach defended the IOC at the event. “The world is ruled by politics, not sports organizations,” said Bach. “There’s a natural tension there.” Sport stands for joy, integration and tolerance and can build bridges. If politics has the upper hand and does not respect these values, sport can no longer develop its unifying power. This was evident in the Olympic boycotts of the 1970s and 80s, he added.

Bach himself won team gold with Germany as a fencer at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. 16 African countries boycotted these games in protest against apartheid in the participating nation of South Africa. Bach was unable to compete in Moscow in 1980 because the West boycotted the Games after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan a year earlier. According to Bach, the lesson learned from the boycotts is “that we have to be politically neutral, but not apolitical. And we mustn’t make the mistake of acting as referees.”

The IOC does not want to set a precedent

According to the IOC President, the sport is often overwhelmed by activists. “We can’t solve all of the world’s problems with sport,” said Bach. “You can’t transfer that to sport and you can’t overload it with it.” That’s why there needs to be a clear demarcation from politics, he said. “A competition among athletes can set an example, it can inspire. But not anymore. ”Politicians are responsible for the rest, he said.

Bach also addressed demands for the IOC to completely ban athletes from Russia and Belarus from the upcoming games in Paris. “We understand the Ukrainian athletes. Nobody can get away from the images and the suffering [of the war]’ Bach explained.

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However, he said the Ukrainian government is demanding isolation of all Russians and Belarusians. This is contrary to the UN Declaration of Human Rights and also to the Olympic Charter. “That puts us in a dilemma. If we create a precedent, it will destroy Olympic sport. We’re talking about international competitions, which can then become a political pawn.”

Next week, the IOC plans to develop guidelines for qualifying for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. The plans are said to include the right to participate for athletes from Russia and Belarus. “Deciding that is no enviable task,” admitted Bach. Only history will judge, he said, reiterating that the IOC’s main job is to make peace, not isolate. The demonstrators in front of the gates of the Essen Philharmonic see it very differently.

This article was translated from German

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