In the first months of the full-scale invasion, Russian and Belarusian athletes became persona non grata at numerous international competitions. In February 2022, the International Olympic Committee recommended that representatives of the Russian Federation and Belarus not be allowed to participate in sporting events. Representatives of these countries were suspended from competitions everywhere: in track and field athletics, motorsports, tennis, swimming, fencing, volleyball, hockey, football, gymnastics, boxing, biathlon, freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, rowing, mixed martial arts, etc.
More than a year later, the International Olympic Committee's decision changed. On March 28, the IOC recommended that Russian and Belarusian athletes be allowed to return to international competitions. In response, the Cabinet of Ministers decided to ban Ukrainian delegations from participating in sporting events where Russia and Belarus will be represented. The relevant order was published by the Ministry of Youth and Sports of Ukraine on April 12.
LIGA.net found out the opinions of Ukrainian athletes about this ban and the prospects of non-participation in competitions where Russians and Belarusians will be represented. We also asked how the Ukrainian sports community is trying to influence international federations to prevent representatives of the Russian Federation and Belarus from participating in international events.
Demotivation of Ukrainian athletes
On April 5, the United World Wrestling federation decided to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete. The representatives of the terrorist state will compete at the European Championships in Zagreb on April 17-23.
Ukrainian Greco-Roman wrestler and 2020 Tokyo Olympics champion Zhan Beleniuk calls the situation an avalanche. In his opinion, by its decision to allow representatives of the Russian Federation and Belarus to compete, the International Olympic Committee has effectively shifted all responsibility to international federations.
"In many sports, there is a fairly strong pro-Russian lobby. Therefore, such federations will try to involve Russians and Belarusians by one method or another. Even if it doesn't work now, Russia will definitely work on it and will not disdain any methods for this: from bribery to blackmail. In this regard, the representatives of the terrorist state are not lacking in ingenuity," the athlete explains.
On September 16-24, Serbia will host the World Greco-Roman Wrestling Championships, where the first set of licenses to participate in the 2024 Olympic Games will be drawn. According to Zhan Beleniuk, potential non-participation in this competition will deprive Ukrainian athletes of the opportunity to win licenses and compete for medals.
In the long run, non-participation in international competitions can negatively affect athletes' careers.
"This is a very demotivating story for every athlete, because you don't understand your future prospects. You are in limbo, you don't know what to prepare for. Perhaps some older athletes (who go beyond the conventional generally accepted age limits for a particular sport or category — ed.) will have to think about ending their careers altogether," Beleniuk said.
In his opinion, the Ministry of Youth and Sports should communicate its decision with the sports community, explain the motivation and purpose.
"No Ukrainian athlete wants to compete with representatives of Russia or Belarus, to stand on the same podium. Especially in such contact sports as Greco-Roman wrestling. But now many of our athletes do not understand what to expect in the future. Therefore, the ministry should explain the purpose and stages of this diplomatic struggle," the wrestler adds.
Attention of global community to the war
World Aquatics (formerly the International Swimming Federation or FINA) has not yet made a decision on whether to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to return to competition. The final answer is expected in July. However, the Ukrainian community hopes that representatives of the terrorist state will not be able to return to the international arena.
"We are training against all odds: despite air raid alerts and blackouts. Therefore, we have the right to participate in these competitions like no other. But I don't understand how it will be possible to go there, to be in the same space as murderers, rapists and terrorists. With people who are destroying us or simply silently supporting the regime," comments Marta Fedina, two-time Olympic bronze medalist and world and European synchronized swimming champion.
According to her, Ukrainian athletes are doing everything possible to prevent the return of Russians and Belarusians to the international arena: they are sharing videos of the consequences of Russian aggression, tagging the pages of international federations on social media, giving numerous interviews to foreign publications, and telling their colleagues abroad about the war. However, after more than a year of full-scale war, the level of attention has waned.
"When we arrived in Budapest for the competition last June, there were many people who supported us, came up to us and asked about the war, wanted to know the truth. Later, at the European Championships, I showed athletes from other countries a residential building in Kharkiv, located next door to mine. A missile hit it and a huge crater formed. They looked and were amazed. But now everyone seems to have forgotten that there is a war in Ukraine. No one asks how we are doing. Everyone thinks that everything is fine since we are able to train in Ukraine," explains the swimmer.
Losses for Ukrainian sport
The World Athletics federation has decided not to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in competitions this season. However, Ukrainian jumper and European champion Maryna Bekh-Romanchuk notes that the IOC's decision to allow Russians and Belarusians to compete has provoked a chain reaction that other federations are already joining and will continue to join.
"At this stage, several international federations have already decided to bring back Russian and Belarusian athletes. And I think this will become a global problem. Some will just throw up their hands, while others will finally do what they have long been waiting for. Step by step, federations in various sports will return these athletes, and this is very, very bad, because we will not be able to resist this avalanche," she explains.
In the long run, the non-participation of Ukrainian athletes in international events may become the first link in the destruction of Ukrainian sport, the athlete believes. According to Maryna Bekh-Romanchuk, boycotting tournaments could end the careers of many high-level athletes.
"Everyone has some plans for life. And these Olympic Games may be the last for some. Because why train if you can't go to the competition? Why go to the gym every day if there is no benefit to the country? In my opinion, this will be a long-term failure in Ukrainian sports, because it takes years to train an Olympian. It will take more than one Olympics to bring up the next generations," the athlete adds.
Maryna Bekh-Romanchuk explains that in some sports, even a year of non-participation in international competitions can be decisive for the entire career. In particular, in swimming, which is the sport of the athlete's husband, Mykhailo Romanchuk.
"If Russian and Belarusian swimmers are allowed to compete, he will not be able to compete at the World Championships and the Olympic Games. So much work and effort put in earlier will be wasted. And it is unlikely that maintenance training will allow me to return to the current level, because swimming is a sport that constantly requires maximum effort," says the athlete.
A similar situation can occur in other sports. As a result, the jumper says, many titled Ukrainian athletes may simply lose their form.
"I can't wrap my head around the idea that we won't be at the Olympic Games in Paris. That the athletes who are doing their best to glorify Ukraine will not be able to get a license this season and that in the end we will all simply not go there because we have chosen a boycott position. Just imagine: the whole world's attention will be focused on the Olympic Games, and we are not there. Neither our flag, nor our anthem, nor our athletes and fans. We will not win medals, we will not communicate with foreign media. We will simply not exist in the international sports arena. We will withdraw ourselves, and in the meantime, Russian athletes will feel comfortable," she reflects.
How to counteract the return of Russian and Belarusian athletes?
In order to prevent the return of Russians and Belarusians to the international arena, it is necessary to continue to draw the world's attention to the war crimes of the terrorist state. And although, according to Zhan Beleniuk, it is impossible to maintain a strong pro-Ukrainian position in all international federations, it is still worth continuing sports diplomacy.
"We have to hold various actions depending on the resources of the representatives of a particular federation, lobby our athletes, participate in various rallies and put pressure on international organizations. Of course, it's hard to compete with a hundred-dollar bill, but we have examples of sports federations that voted for the further suspension of representatives of Russia and Belarus," he explains.
Track and field athlete Maryna Bekh-Romanchuk notes that Ukraine should reach out to the leadership of international sports federations and give the situation maximum publicity at the national and global level: write petitions, requests, letters and appeals. First of all, world-renowned athletes should be involved in this, as they will be able to enlist the support of European countries.
"We understand that many federations have pro-Russian people in leadership positions. But we must do everything possible to create conditions under which neither Russian nor Belarusian athletes will be able to come to these competitions. If they have to sign an additional document, a declaration, or make some kind of statement that could lead to them being recognized as foreign agents, then these athletes will continue to stay in their home countries," she explains.
At the same time, there have been suggestions in the media that Ukrainian athletes should not participate in competitions, but instead come to tournaments and boycott them. According to Zhan Beleniuk, this solution is inappropriate, as federations will not be able to afford such trips.
"Recently, the Minister of Youth and Sports, President of the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine Vadym Gutzeit said that in April, budget funds would cover all trips of our athletes to competitions, even if representatives of Russia and Belarus were present and the Ukrainian team withdrew. However, starting next month, if the team has not monitored the current [developments], traveled to the competition, and Russians or Belarusians show up, our athletes will have to boycott the event and will not be reimbursed for any expenses. So everything falls on the shoulders of national federations. Whether they will be interested in sending athletes for such a boycott is a big question," he explained.
It is worth noting that on April 3, the Ministry of Youth and Sports announced that it would deprive federations of their national status if their athletes participate in tournaments where representatives of Russia and Belarus compete. At the same time, the ministry emphasized that it is considering supporting national federations that boycott competitions in order to avoid sanctions from international ones.