Recently, David Wallechinsky was in Ukraine, the country that has been under siege by Russia for more than a year and a half. As one of the co-founders of the International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH), the 75-year-old American regularly travels the world to record the stories of former Olympians.

Wallechinsky spoke with Valeri Borsov in Ukraine. Borsov won gold in the 100 and 200 meter sprint during the 1972 Munich Games – marked by the bloody hostage taking of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists.

The American asked the Ukrainian, who played for the Soviet Union at the time, what he thought of the IOC decision to admit Russians and Belarusians under a neutral flag to the upcoming Games in Paris. Borsov had a hard time, says Wallechinsky from California. “As a Ukrainian, he does not want to see a single Russian or Belarusian in action there. But Borsov is also a member of the IOC and must therefore support their choice. I saw how it tore him apart.”

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the day after the Winter Games in Beijing, the sports world was unanimous: athletes from Russia and Belarus (which supports Russian President Putin’s war) were now banned from international sporting events. On the advice of the IOC, to protect the “integrity” of the sport.

But that hard line has slowly but surely been abandoned over the past year and a half. Last Friday, the IOC announced that (Belarusian) athletes will be welcome in Paris after all. On the condition of ‘neutrality’: no ​​flag, no national anthem. In addition, athletes may not be affiliated with the military or ‘actively’ support the war.

It was the apotheosis of a year and a half of political wrangling, based on two sometimes difficult to reconcile principles: on the one hand, the IOC wants to promote peace, but the Olympic charter states that athletes from all countries must be welcome.

At least one international sports association does not appear to be following the IOC’s line. Sebastian Coe, chairman of the world athletics association, has said that (Belarusian) athletes are not welcome, a decision that associations can make themselves.


Wallechinsky was not surprised by the IOC’s choice for Russian ‘neutral’ participation. Anyone who paid attention, he says, regularly heard IOC president Bach giving instructions. “For example, he said a long time ago that athletes should be central, that they were the most important.” In other words, politics should not keep athletes away from the most important event of their career.

Bach, Wallechinsky soon saw, was heading towards the Barcelona precedent, towards the Summer Games that took place there in 1992. The Yugoslav Wars had just broken out and the IOC decided that athletes from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which then only consisted of Serbia and Montenegro were allowed to participate, but only under a neutral flag.

A break with previous policy. South Africa was excluded from the apartheid regime between 1964 and 1988. Although the IOC did not want that at first, says Wallechinsky. “But there was so much political pressure. Not only from African countries, also from Northern Europe.” He sees a parallel with Ukraine. Once again, calls for tough action came from Eastern European countries, especially from Scandinavia.

Bach is said to hate boycotts because, as a fencer, he himself was not allowed to attend the 1980 Moscow Games, which were boycotted by West Germany.

“I don’t know how much influence that experience had on him as IOC president. But he is certainly opposed to boycotts. He is convinced, and many with him, that athletes should not be punished for the actions of their government.”

(Belarusian) athletes who participate in Paris must meet conditions: has this happened before in Olympic history?

“No, there is no precedent for that. In the Yugoslavia situation they did not demand that. But you know, when George W. Bush invaded Iraq, no one asked what American athletes thought about that. I think the cry for help from Ukrainian athletes has been stronger than that of Iraqis.”

You mean that the IOC has not treated countries consistently over the years?

“You only have to think back to the situation in Mexico in 1968. Ten days before the Olympic Games took place there, hundreds of people were shot dead by government forces during a peaceful protest. The IOC then said: this is a domestic matter. We have nothing to do with it. So yes, to put it mildly: the IOC is not consistent.”

Will the Ukrainians boycott the Games, something they have threatened to do before?

“No, I do not think so. That wouldn’t be wise either. This is their chance to show themselves. There is a lot of support for them within the Olympic movement.”

Participating under a neutral flag is nothing new for Russia. After the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, it became clear that Russian athletes had taken advantage of a state-sponsored doping program that covered almost all sports. The IOC decided to punish Russia. Since then, Russians have been forced to emerge under a neutral flag.

What did you think at the time of that decision to allow the Russians to participate? It was against the wishes of countries such as the Netherlands and the US, and the world anti-doping agency WADA.

“I thought it was very weak, it was nothing more than a slap on the fingers. At the Pyeongchang Winter Games (in 2018), I clearly remember that the Russians didn’t care much. They wore outfits that clearly referred to Russia, and Russian songs were sung in the audience. It meant nothing. They are making a fool of the IOC. That is one of the reasons, I think, that the IOC has now imposed stricter conditions.”

Why do you think the Russians were not completely kept out at that time?

“Some countries seem to be above the law. This also applies to the United States or China. The Chinese are said to have cheated with personal data at the Beijing Games in 2008 so that gymnasts who were too young could participate. This embarrassed the IOC, because it did not want to antagonize the Chinese. Ultimately, they left it to the international gymnastics association. If a country like Togo did something like that, they would be punished. ”

Do you think the IOC’s conditions are strict enough to prevent the achievements of Russian athletes from being used as propaganda by Putin?

“During the Games, the IOC took more measures to prevent this. But if Russian athletes get a medal… Once they get home, they can do whatever they want.”

When you hear all this, how much are the Olympic Charter – which stipulates political neutrality – and something like an Olympic truce – that no war is waged during the Games – actually worth?

“As for neutrality: that is an interesting one. To what extent are athletes allowed to express themselves? The IOC is now on the line: okay, you can say and do whatever you want during press conferences, but not during medal ceremonies. In Paris I am curious to see what happens between Israel and Palestine, because Palestine is also part of the Olympic movement.

“Historically, there have always been athletes who have spoken out politically. More than a hundred years ago, Irish athletes climbed a flagpole to exchange the British Union Jack for an Irish flag. And what you see now, with American black athletes kneeling during the national anthem (as a protest against racism), is also interesting. Many people see that as a political statement. But those athletes say: no, the Olympic charter speaks out against racism. When we kneel, it is not a political statement, but a human rights statement.”

And then as for that Olympic truce, the call to end all wars during the Games: that is “meaningless,” says Wallechinsky. “Empty words.” That is not illogical either. “The IOC is a sports organization. What can they do?”

In addition, that file is also a myth. “There never really was an Olympic truce in ancient Greece. If there was a war going on, and people were heading to Olympia (where the original Olympics took place), they were allowed through. But then the killing continued.”

That said, the IOC has had some successes, Wallechinksy says. “West and East Germany, which participated as one country three times (1956-1964). This also happened with the Koreas (in 2018).” And there are “beautiful examples” of athletes who actually overcome all political conflicts in accordance with the Olympic spirit, he says. “For example, there is a photo from the 1984 Games in which a Chinese weightlifter shakes hands with a rival from Taiwan. That is a really powerful image.”

Although Wallechinksy does not think that photo has been shown in China. “And I don’t know how things turned out for the Chinese athlete.”


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