The Biden administration said on Thursday that Russian and Belarusian athletes should only compete in the 2024 Olympics in Paris as neutral participants, but did not weigh in on the bigger question: whether the athletes should be allowed in at all.
Ukraine has in the past week undertaken a concerted campaign to persuade the International Olympic Committee to ban athletes from Russia and Belarus entirely. Several of its European allies have lent their support, but the White House took a more cautious approach on Thursday.
Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, told reporters that the United States has supported removing Russia and Belarus’s sport governing bodies and their representatives from international sports federations. But when sports organizations like the I.O.C. do chose to allow those athletes to compete, “it should be absolutely clear that they are not representing the Russian or Belarusian states,” she said.
Last week, the I.O.C. said it would continue to explore ways to allow athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete, and suggested they could participate as individuals, without their countries’ names, flags or colors, as long as they had not actively supported the war. That approach would be similar to the way sporting organizations dealt with Russian athletes in response to a state-sponsored doping scheme at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The White House’s cautious step into the brewing dispute is in line with the stance of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, but puts the country at odds with several other Ukrainian allies.
On Thursday, the sports ministers of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia jointly condemned the I.O.C.’s proposal as legitimizing “Russia’s unlawful aggression in Ukraine,” while Norway’s national sports confederation released a statement reaffirming its position that as long as the war continued, it could not “envisage athletes from Russia and Belarus being able to participate in international sports competitions, even under strict principles of neutrality.”
Sport and government officials from the U.K., Germany and Denmark have also said they disagree with the I.O.C.’s prospective plans.
The head of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, however, wrote last week in a letter shared with The New York Times that the committee supported the I.O.C.’s exploration of a neutral pathway, saying there was “a real desire to compete against all the world’s best athletes.”
The dispute over Russia and Belarus’s participation in the Olympics has ramped up dramatically over the past week as Ukraine embarked on a fierce public pressure campaign to keep Russian athletes out of the Paris Games. President Volodymyr Zelensky has broached the topic with several foreign leaders and publicly derided the I.O.C.’s notion of neutrality during a war. He called out the I.O.C. president, Thomas Bach, by name last week, inviting him to one of the bloodiest front lines to “see with his own eyes that neutrality does not exist.”
The I.O.C. defended itself in a list of questions and answers on Thursday that stressed that no decision had been made. The committee said its sanctions on Russia and Belarus remained in place, and noted that United Nations human rights experts had commended its consideration of allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as neutral parties as an effort to fight discrimination on the basis of nationality.
The I.O.C. also denounced threats from Ukraine to boycott the Games as an “extremely regretful” and “premature” escalation.