USOPC sees ‘impossible’ hurdle to Russian return to Olympics

The leader of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee conceded it would be “impossible” to monitor which athletes have supported the war in Ukraine if a plan is devised to allow some Russians to compete as neutrals in international competitions, and potentially the Olympics.

USOPC chair Susanne Lyons said Monday that the federation supported last week’s decision at an IOC summit to explore a pathway for Russian athletes back into competition. Among the conditions would be that those athletes would be subject to a strict ban on displaying Russian flags and colors, and that they could not have backed the war.

There have, however, been Russian athletes who have been vocally supportive of the war.

“It’s going to be impossible to figure out how they would monitor it,” Lyons said.

In February, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the IOC recommended that Russian and Belarusian athletes should be excluded from competition, citing concerns over safety and the integrity of competitions. Most Olympic sports followed the recommendation and imposed bans.

But IOC President Thomas Bach has signaled a desire to bring some Russian athletes into the fold. Lyons agreed that while there was no forgiving of Russia’s behavior, “there’s a fair amount of desire over time for that to be able to happen because our mission is to bring the world together in peace through sport.”

The so-called Declaration of the 11th Olympic Summit, passed on Friday, seeks a pathway for that return, in part by allowing them to compete in Asian, not European, continental events as part of the soon-to-start Olympic qualifying phase. The plan has come under harsh scrutiny because there has been steady support among some Russian athletes for the war.

Ukraine objected to the decision to invite Russian Olympic Committee President Stanislav Pozdnyakov to last week’s conference. No representatives of Ukraine were on an attendance list published by the IOC for the invitation-only event.

The plan would maintain sanctions on Russia — including a ban on international events being held in the country — but is designed, it said in the declaration, to “live up to the Olympic mission to unite athletes from all around the world in peaceful competition, while noting that there are different views among the athlete community.”

Lyons said the U.S. signed off on the declaration, while acknowledging there were details still to be worked out, especially if it comes down to figuring out which athletes should be eligible to compete.

“I don’t know how they could possibly really know whether an athlete is or is not supportive of their government actions,” Lyons said. “But there was agreement that they would want to have athletes who had not supported the conflict.”

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