Ukraine's sports minister: As Russia kills our athletes, it's not the time to allow Russians back to international sports

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Editor's Note: This interview was recorded before the International Olympics Committee's announcement on allowing some Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in Olympic qualification tournaments.

Following the executive board meeting on March 28, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) recommended allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in international sporting events, while still banning anyone who actively supports Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The International Olympics Committee said that the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus at the 2024 Olympics in Paris hasn’t yet been confirmed.

“The IOC will take this decision at the appropriate time, at its full discretion, and without being bound by the results of previous Olympic qualification competitions,” the press release read.

Ukrainian Sports Minister Vadym Gutzeit welcomed the postponement of the decision to admit athletes from these countries back into the Olympics and said that the ministry will continue working with international sports federations as they are the ones making the final decision regarding the admission of athletes to competitions.

“Now we will continue to work in the same direction so that international federations that are still considering this issue do not change their position,” he said in a Facebook post.

In an exclusive interview with the Kyiv Independent, prior to the IOC's announcement, Gutzeit said that he didn't understand how Russians could be allowed to take part in international sporting events.

The decision to clear the path for Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in the Olympics sparked outrage from Ukraine and its partners.

A total of 34 countries called on the IOC to keep its previous recommendation to not allow Russians to participate.

Many Russian athletes are members of military clubs such as the Central Sports Club of the Army (CSKA), which remains part of Russia's Defense Ministry.

"Russia won 71 medals in the Tokyo Olympics. Forty-five of them were won by athletes who are also members of the Central Sports Club of the Russian Army. The army that commits atrocities, kills, rapes, and loots," Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said.

Gutzeit said 262 Ukrainian athletes and coaches were killed by Russian forces, as of March 21.

Russia's war against Ukraine has also damaged 343 sports facilities and completely or partially destroyed 95 of them, Ukraine's Sports Ministry reported.

“We believe that they see what is happening in Ukraine, that they see how athletes from Russia and Belarus support this military aggression, that they (stand) with their troops who are fighting on our territory, killing Ukrainians, and they realize that now is not the time to bring back Russian and Belarusian athletes,” Gutzeit said.

The Kyiv Independent spoke with Gutzeit about how sports remains an integral part of Russian propaganda, the role of the international sports federations in whitewashing Moscow, and why some of them have already started admitting athletes from Russia to international competitions.

The Kyiv Independent: It's important to note that when the IOC published its original statement on Feb. 28, 2022, it did not ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing, it was only a recommendation.

Do I understand correctly that individual sports federations will make the final decision on the admission of athletes?

Vadym Gutzeit: Yes, the IOC only recommends, and all the International Federations for Olympic and non-Olympic sports make individual decisions.

On March 10, (the International Fencing Federation) approved the decision to return athletes from Russia and Belarus.

As far as I understand, the IOC cannot say unequivocally that 'we do not allow, and that's it.'

On Feb. 28, 2022, they made a recommendation, and all the federations realized that it was impossible to allow Russians and Belarusians to compete during the war. So, this recommendation came into effect, and all federations suspended (the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes).

I understand that the International Fencing Federation, whose (former) president is (Russian oligarch) Alisher Usmanov (2008-2022), of course, has done everything to return Russians and Belarusians to world fencing.

I understand that (federations) where there are Russian funds, and Russians are in leadership will return Russian athletes. But many federations that do not have this, and understand and support us, will not return Russians.

The Kyiv Independent: The European Parliament condemned the IOC’s intention to return Russians and Belarusians to international competitions, emphasizing that these countries will use sports for propaganda.

Could you elaborate on how Russia could use this move by the IOC for propaganda purposes?

Vadym Gutzeit: After every victory, they will tell how strong they are, how powerful they are, how they win wars, and how they win in sports, and how they are the best country. Athletes will come back home as heroes.

The world will see their flags and many statements that ‘we are a powerful country,’ that ‘we win wars and we are there (at the Olympics).’

Athletes will return and wear uniforms with the (pro-war) letter “Z.” This will be on television. Such actions are unacceptable, and this will be real propaganda. We understand all this.

The Kyiv Independent: The UK recently called on Olympic sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Intel, and Samsung, to pressure the IOC to maintain the recommendation on athletes from Russia and Belarus. Is it effective?

Vadym Gutzeit: The sponsors of the International Olympic Committee are a very important lever for us.

We are grateful to our friends from the U.K., where the government has signed letters to the sponsors of the International Olympic Committee so that the sponsors could also pressure the IOC to exclude Russian athletes.

We hope that the IOC will hear us, the governments of all countries, and the Olympic committees that have already expressed support for Ukraine in terms of non-admission (of Russian athletes).

And it's also very important that athletes (and) Olympic champions from all countries in all sports also speak out against the return of Russian athletes.

Plus, the position of International Sports Federations is very important.

Each federation is responsible for holding international competitions in its sport, and it is crucial that each federation, where there is no Russian money, and where there are no pro-Russian lobbies, defend the position (of non-admission).

The Kyiv Independent: If Russian and Belarusian athletes are allowed to participate in the 2024 Olympics, what will Ukraine do?

Vadym Gutzeit: We collect opinions from all federations and athletes' commissions in each sport. We collect opinions on their vision of whether to participate or not to participate (in international competitions).

Almost all federations are inclined not to participate in international competitions. Over time, we will all have to decide together whether to participate in the Olympic Games or boycott.

This is a tough decision for every athlete, every federation, me personally, and all Ukrainians. Because I really want our athletes to be at the Olympics, I want our flag to be at the Olympics and our athletes to compete and have a chance to win, to stand on podiums. That is why this is such a difficult decision.

The Kyiv Independent: Could you tell us about the conditions in which Ukrainian athletes prepare for international competitions and what problems they are facing during the full-scale war?

Vadym Gutzeit: We understand that from the first days of the full-scale war, everything became different. Many of our athletes have been in Ukraine, and many have been abroad. Preparations for international competitions were underway. Competitions and training camps had already begun.

The war broke out, and athletes from many cities occupied in the first weeks came to those cities where there were no hostilities. We focused on keeping our athletes and coaches abroad at that time because many had nowhere to return to. And we had to figure out how we would decide with our athletes and teams where they would stay.

And by that time, the funding for these training camps and competitions had already stopped.

And we thank all our partners and countries, the presidents of all sports federations, who supported our national teams at that time, provided funds, and hosted (athletes) free of charge.

Our national teams were provided with modern sports facilities where they trained, ate, and were helped with equipment. In other words, (partners) took care of everything that the country could not take care of at that time.

But over time, thanks to our Armed Forces, (Ukraine) repelled Russian soldiers from Kyiv, and we started training in western Ukraine, in Kyiv, and many of our athletes have already begun to return home.

We created conditions for our athletes to attend all competitions. It was important for us to have all our athletes at the competitions, to have them with the flag, to have them perform, to have them on the podiums in many sports, to show what is happening in Ukraine and that our athletes are also fighting on the sports front for our victory so that everyone could see that Ukraine was, is and will be.

As you've heard, many of our athletes have had relatives and friends killed. More than 3,000 of our athletes are currently at war. Two hundred sixty-two athletes (and coaches) have already been killed in the war.

Every day there is an air raid alert, our air defense works, and missiles are shot down, but still, (some) missiles reach our critical infrastructure. For several months, we had no electricity and no heat.

You saw me posting a video on Facebook of our athlete training, and during the training, there is an air raid alert, and our air defense system is shooting down missiles. Our athletes have to train in such conditions. We are fighting for our independence and our future in such conditions.

The Kyiv Independent: In a statement, the IOC promised to continue supporting the training and participation of Ukrainian athletes in all competitions. What kind of assistance does this include and whether Ukraine currently uses the funds from the Solidarity Fund announced by the IOC?

In 2022, (yes). Thanks to the International Olympic Committee, our athletes and federations have been supported in their training process in order to participate in competitions.

This year, we have not used it yet, because we have budgeted our funds to support our athletes. The International Olympic Committee also offered us help from the Solidarity Fund (in 2023), and they have funds for this.

We haven't started using these funds yet. First of all, we still have (our) funds. And secondly, you know, in my personal opinion, if the IOC will allow (Russian and Belarusian athletes) to compete internationally, I think it would be wrong if we use the IOC funds.

Thanks to the IOC, there are no Russians and Belarusians (competing internationally) yet, and the solidarity fund has been created, and President Thomas Bach was in Kyiv and met with the president.

(Bach) promised that he would continue to help Ukraine and that in the future, there would be no Russians and Belarusians on international sports grounds. And if (the IOC) starts returning them now, it will be inappropriate to use these funds. This is my personal opinion.