Picture: Julien de Rosa/AFP/Taken on June 20, 2023 – The entrance of the headquarters of the Paris 2024 Olympics (Cojo) headquarters in Saint-Denis, northern Paris. Sport is always political, the writer says, in the face of the dilemma the Olympics face on inclusion or not of Russia in the 2024 games.
By John Feinstein
It was a two-paragraph squib last week in many places: The World Aquatics Bureau announced that athletes from Russia and Belarus would be allowed to compete in international events – including the 2024 Paris Olympics – but only as “neutrals”.
This is the cop-out that most athletic governing bodies have taken since Russia invaded Ukraine 18 months ago. At least Wimbledon – in 2022 – actually banned Russian and Belarusian players from competing. In response, the men’s and women’s governing bodies of tennis fined England’s Lawn Tennis Association and the All England Club more than $1 million and said players wouldn’t accumulate rankings points at the tournament.
Let’s agree that determining whether to ban these athletes is a difficult decision. On one hand, they come from countries that are killing people on a daily basis. On the other hand, the athletes didn’t decide to go to war, and in most cases, few of us know where they stand politically because they are smart enough to keep their mouths shut.
If they publicly support the war, they are certain to be taken to task. If they come out against the war, it might not be safe for them to return home – and it could affect their families.
It’s quite the conundrum. The easy way out for sports governing bodies is to take the old “politics and sports shouldn’t mix” route. The problem is this: Politics and sports always mix – and have for as long as anyone can remember.
Avery Brundage, then the president of the US Olympic Committee, bowed to German pressure when two Jewish athletes were removed from the Americans’ 4×100 relay at the 1936 Berlin Olympics so as not to insult Adolf Hitler. Thirty-six years later, Brundage, then in charge of the International Olympic Committee, declared “The Games must go on” without so much as pausing for breath after 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by terrorists in Munich.
In 1968, Czechoslovakian gymnast Vera Caslavska tied for a gold medal with the Soviet Union’s Larisa Petrik. The women had to share the top step on the podium during the playing of the national anthems. When the Soviet anthem began, Caslavska dropped her head and refused to look up at the Soviet flag. It was a remarkably simple, dramatic and effective protest of the Soviet invasion of Prague that summer.
During the 1960s and 1970s, a number of top South African tennis players emerged as apartheid policies still governed their country. Johan Kriek, a two-time major champion, and Kevin Curren, a Wimbledon finalist, became American citizens. Why?
“It’s very difficult to travel to many countries on a South African passport,” Curren said shortly after he beat Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon in 1985.
Eight years after the Munich Games, President Jimmy Carter had the United States boycott the Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, a country later occupied by US troops. For most Olympic athletes, the chance to go to the Games is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A number of American athletes who missed that chance in 1980 have never gotten over it.
Four years later, most of the Eastern bloc boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics, a political tit-for-tat with the athletes as pawns.
So sports and politics always mix.
Swimming’s leadership is taking the easiest way out, wringing its hands over the war while saying the athletes can still compete. Officials issued a seven-page set of rules for what they called the “neutral individual athletes”: no national anthems (a shame in the case of the Russian anthem, which is quite beautiful), with officials saying “the World Aquatics Anthem” would be played instead; only one swimmer per country per event (so the second-best swimmer is affected by politics, even if the first is not); robust anti-doping measures; a requirement that all “neutral” athletes wear plain white uniforms; and, the best one of all, no contact with the media.
If any athletes should have to meet with the media, these are the ones. If they don’t want to take a position on the war, that’s their right, but they should have to answer questions about the competition, about wearing white, about winning gold (if they do) and not hearing their national anthem, about not being able to swim relays – because apparently there is no “team neutral”.
More important, though, is the larger issue of whether athletes in a country that started and continues to perpetrate a horrific war should be allowed to compete.
I don’t think there is any easy answer to this one. The athletes who missed the 1980 and 1984 Olympics were victims of politicians who were using them to score political points. The irony of the 1980 boycott is that Carter threw a party at the White House for the US Winter Olympic team shortly after announcing the boycott of that year’s Summer Games. The question being asked by many athletes that day was this: Had anything cheered the country at a very difficult time more than the hockey team’s win over the Soviets in Lake Placid?
Of course not.
This, however, is different. The notion of banning athletes because of Vladimir Putin’s war makes some sense: It sends a public message to Putin, who loves Russian victories in international competition, and might apply some pressure on him at home.
If the Russian and Belarusian athletes compete in Paris, I will understand. I also will understand those who are appalled by their presence.
But if they are allowed to compete – which I’m guessing they ultimately will be, in all sports – then don’t play these silly “neutral athletes” games. Either they’re in or they’re out. You can’t change where they come from by making them wear white shirts. Play their anthems when they win, and let people drop their heads in protest.
That will send a message – a real one.
John Feinstein is a Post contributor who also writes for Golf Digest, Golf World and does TV color on college basketball games
This article was first published in The Washington Post