Paris 2024 Russia Ukraine

Member Insights: Olympic Games in crosshairs of Russia’s war

April 26, 2023

Olympic Games advisor, Michael Pirrie, says Russia’s push for inclusion at the Paris Olympic Games while it continues its devastating war in Ukraine presents a confronting vision for the future of sport in turbulent times.

Russia has taken world sport to a new flashpoint – this time over plans for its athletes to compete again in international sport at the Paris Olympic Games.

After initially recommending the removal of Russian sporting teams and events from the world stage post the Ukraine invasion, the IOC is attempting to navigate a pathway back for Russian and Belarusian athletes in Paris as neutral competitors. 

The military war has also become a fierce war of words in some of the highest offices of international sport and government.

Russia’s Olympic return has been hit by volleys of incoming missiles of resistance from sporting bodies and political leaders.

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The matter is now escalating and has divided world sport, Olympic continents, nations, and Paris 

The unresolved issue has become a growing global sporting and political crisis amid concerns the preconditions for a possible Games boycott may again be forming on the horizon.

This would be crippling for the Olympic Movement, its sponsors, that include some of the world’s biggest and most successful brands, and funding from junior to elite levels of sport.  

Olympic officials are now under growing pressure from more than 30 governments, including the United  States, United Kingdom, Germany and host nation France  – all leading, loyal and committed Olympic nations – to ban athletes from Russia.

International federations, world governing bodies, national Olympic committees and government leaders have formed the front lines of defence to block the pathway to Paris next summer. 

The opposition to Russia also includes lingering concerns amongst a number of senior sports leaders about Russia’s long-time use of banned drugs and corruption of the Olympic sports system

Some senior Olympic sports insiders indicate Russia’s regular reference to UN anti-discrimination articles to argue its case lack credibility – especially after Russian athletes have long discriminated against sporting rivals through extensive use of powerful performance enhancing drugs.

Ukraine supporters also claim it is not against Olympic traditions nor discriminatory to exclude a team from a country that is attempting to destroy another Olympic nation.

The widening division between Olympic leaders and several Olympic sports governing bodies and nations over Russia’s Olympic qualification options is now looming as one of the biggest external challenges for the Olympic Movement in decades.

This could lead to a dramatic reshaping of the global Olympic landscape. 

The clash over Russia’s Olympic future has also become a heated moral battle about war crimes and punishment.

While Olympic officials believe Russia’s presence in Paris will contribute to a greater understanding about sport’s role in turbulent times, many in the international community believe Russia’s invasion cannot be understood nor justified in Paris. 

While sports neutrality has been a pillar of the Olympic Movement, Russia’s growing list of sports crimes and violations under Putin has also raised questions about whether it is the right nation to go to war for in order to defend the principle of sports independence.

The Paris Games controversy is the latest in a slew of sports scandals involving Russia that have rocked international sport over the past decade under Putin, including the Kremlin’s notorious athlete doping and testing manipulation programs.  

Russia’s Paris Olympics offensive also comes after allegations Russia was awarded the 2018 World Cup after bribing FIFA officials.

The most recent scandals have included Russia’s teenage skating prodigy, Kamila Valieva, whose positive drugs test revealed during last year’s Beijing Winter Olympics shocked the international community.

The Russian-linked secretive cyber criminal intelligence team known as “Fuzzy Bear” is also suspected of hacking the files of the World Anti-Doping Agency after it recommended a ban on Russian athletes at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

With its style of government and sport so intertwined and so foreign to most Olympic nations, some senior international sports regulators believe Russia may be almost beyond rehabilitation will remain an Olympic outlier under Putin.  

For many in the international community, sports neutrality becomes less urgent as more cemeteries in Ukraine are filled with soldiers, citizens and children.

While Olympic officials attempt to find a Paris pathway, the worsening war violence has made it increasingly difficult to remain neutral.

Russia’s invasion has forced the international community to take sides – overwhelmingly with Ukraine – on and off the sporting field, and in other key sectors including national security.

This has seen some of Europe’s most traditionally neutral countries including Finland sign up to NATO, with Sweden also set to follow, and both firm supporters of moves to keep Russia out of the Paris Games.        

While preparations for Paris continue, the resistance against Russia shows little sign of subsiding.  

Opposition is still strongest in the Olympic heartland of Europe, closest to the war’s epicentre, where sporting and political leaders are strongly united in support of Paris Olympic sanctions.

Sport can’t stop war, but Ukraine President Zelensky, backed by European sports leaders and politicians, believes that removing Russia from the Paris Games can help to keep the spotlight on Putin’s war crimes and atrocities.

While IOC President Thomas Bach has often reached out with support to President Zelensky, the Ukraine leader and experienced Russia watchers believe that Putin gains enormous domestic support and international prestige from Olympic success.

Europe’s leaders believe that Olympic bans can be a key weapon in the armoury of sanctions to further isolate Putin on the world stage.  

This would also help to maximise the Olympic experience for Ukraine athletes in Paris, which could be the last Games for the proud sporting nation if Putin prevails. 

Continental power brokers believe it may be time for Olympic sport to move on without Russia, which was recently banned from the European Games in Poland, Europe’s biggest multiple sport event, organised by the European Olympic Committee.   

The Russia ban cuts vital qualifying opportunities from Russia athletes in a variety of sports, and will reduce the number of competitors who may be able to attend Paris.   

The Olympic Council of Asia, which includes Russia’s closest ally, China, has provided a pathway for Russian and Belarusian athletes to qualify for Paris at the Asian Games in China later this year, stating that athletes “should not be punished for the actions of their governments.” 

While Russia may try to host a smaller breakaway multi-national, multi-sport event if banned from France, this is unlikely due to the IOC’s Olympic Solidarity programme that funds National Olympic Committees.

China would also be unlikely to support a rival international event, despite its deepening relationship with Russia, because of the deep prestige and regard it holds for the Olympics.


Russia’s war and Olympic push have taken the world into unchartered territory involving life and death situations decisions that sport had not anticipated before nor prepared for.

While athletes from many countries of war have been participating at the Olympic Games in recent times, none of the waring nations have Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal nor threatened to deploy. 

Russia’s plans to participate in Paris while still waging war, along with previous violations of international sport and criminal interventions in wider international society – including the downing of Malaysian Airlines passenger flight 17 by Russian-controlled forces that killed more than 290 on board – heralds a dramatic new landscape in the geopolitics of sport.

It heralds a new cross over of politics, sport, security, spying and military operations involving nuclear weapons, and covert doping operations and governments like Russia that see sport and the world differently.

This includes national agendas and goals that clash with long standing codes of international conduct and values both on and off the sporting field. 

While a negotiated diplomatic settlement for Paris currently seems almost impossible without significant concessions from Russia, a new approach will be needed that protects the world’s best athletes and integrity of the Olympic Games experience, sport and security in Paris – all of which could be undermined if Russia attends 

The strategy must also help to support future athletes of Ukraine who may still be defending themselves and their nation against Russian bombs and murder squads during the Paris Games, where athletes from the rogue nation may be competing, just three flying hours from the killing fields of Ukraine created by its Russian invasion 

The intense positioning, bargaining and lobbying currently underway over Russia’s Olympic relevance and future in wake of the Ukraine crisis heralds a profound new era of geopolitical change in sport this century

This is an era in which IOC President Thomas Bach warned that sports governance will need to be rethought in the post Covid climate of rising global uncertainty and mistrust. 

While neutrality was an early casualty of widely endorsed sports sanctions in the early response to Europe’s first major war this century, Russia’s attempts to have bans lifted for the Olympic Games while it continues its horrendous war could be a Rubicon crossing moment in sporting history.

The Russia crisis indicates the rules and articles of faith and engagement that guided the Olympic Movement through much of the last century may no longer be sufficient to deal with violent geopolitical shifts and challenges from nations like Russia in the decades ahead 

The IOC has attempted to de-escalate the crisis by deferring a final decision. 

While Olympic officials have attempted to thread a needle through from the fog of war to allow athletes who have not been involved to compete in Paris, new processes must be developed to enable international sport to continue – with or without Russia.

Paris 2024 Russia Ukraine