Organizers of June’s multi-sport European Games in Krakow, Poland, have told DW they would rather “resign from organizing the competitions” than allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part, despite admitting their concerns that some sports will withdraw from the event.
“Yes, we are concerned that there is such a risk,” Games spokesperson Dawid Glen told DW. “We see what kind of decisions are made internationally. This does not change our position.”
A ban on Russians and Belarusians from the Games has stood since the end of last year, with organizers saying that the participation of athletes from the two countries would be “impossible under the current circumstances.”
Last Thursday, the International Boxing Association (IBA) called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to revoke the European Games’ status as an Olympic qualifier, “to counteract the discriminatory actions taken by the European Olympic Committee,” the body overseeing the Games.
The organizers’ concerns point to growing chaos in international sport after the IOC’s recommendation last month that Russian and Belarusian athletes should be allowed to return to competition as so-called Individual Neutral Athletes, despite Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.
While some sports and competitions have chosen to keep their bans on Russians and Belarusians, others — such as boxing, fencing and taekwondo — have decided to welcome them back.
A ‘dynamic’ situation
For 19 of the 29 sports on the program, including boxing, the European Games will serve as a way of qualifying for Paris 2024.
In its statement last week, the IBA said that the decision to prevent Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing at the Games is “severely damaging” their chances of making it to Paris.
“The athlete-first approach should prevail and there should be no place for politics in our sport, and IBA shows this with its actions,” the IBA wrote. The organization’s president is Russia’s Umar Kremlev and its main sponsor is Russian state gas company Gazprom.
European Games organizers told DW that while the situation hadn’t changed, it was “dynamic” in view of the stances of individual sports.
“We hope that this is not going to happen, but we would sooner resign from organizing competitions in a given discipline than allow Russians and Belarusians to stand on the starting line,” Glen said.
Due to governance issues, the IBA is not in charge of the qualification process for the Paris Olympics. That has been taken over by the IOC, with the European Games the main way for European boxers to book their ticket to Paris. The IOC declined to comment when contacted by DW.
Fencing events canceled
Fencing is another sport that could be affected. In March, even before the latest IOC recommendations, the International Fencing Federation (FIE) voted to overturn a ban on Russian and Belarusian fencers competing in its events.
As a result, several World Cup events in Europe, including one in Germany, have been canceled. That is because local organizers couldn’t guarantee Russian and Belarusian competitors would be granted visas to enter their countries, a demand made by the FIE.
The points fencers accumulate at World Cups and other continental events such as the European Games (fencing’s de facto European championships this year) contribute to their ranking for Olympic qualification. No events mean no qualifying points — for anyone.
“The situation can’t go on like this,” Giorgio Scarso, president of the European Fencing Confederation (EFC), told the AFP news agency.
In a statement sent to DW, the EFC said that it would be honoring its commitment to the European Games, adding: “The confederation has a moral obligation towards its athletes to not put them at a disadvantage. It has undertaken the organization of the European Championships as part of the European Games and will continue to organize these until successful completion.”
Critics: IOC pulling the strings
The IOC has been at pains to stress that no decision has been made about Russian and Belarusian participation in Paris itself, leaving each sport’s international federation to decide if and how to implement its recommendations in their Olympic qualifying events.
But critics like Rob Koehler, head of the athlete-led movement Global Athlete, accuse the IOC of a lack of accountability.
“It is clear to everyone in the Olympic Movement that the IOC controls the purse strings of the international federations and as a result, forces the weak and those with connections to Russia to follow orders from the IOC president,” Koehler told DW.
Ukraine’s government has taken matters into its own hands. Last Friday, it passed a decree blocking its country’s athletes from events where Russians take part. In response, the IOC reiterated its view that “it is not up to governments to decide which athletes can participate in which international competitions.”
European Games spokesperson Glen said organizers “have the full support of the Polish government authorities,” adding that their stance was jointly developed with the European Olympic Committees, the Polish Olympic Committee and Poland’s sports ministry.
“A year ago, Poland spearheaded the decision to expel the Russians from the sport,” Glen said. “At present, we see no reason to change our position on this issue. The bloody war continues.”