The Winter Paralympic Games are scheduled to begin on Friday, but not everyone who initially qualified will be competing. There was considerable controversy swirling around the games regarding what the status of the Russian team would be, given all of the opposition to the situation in Ukraine. On Tuesday, the International Paralympic Committee announced a compromise that would allow both the Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete, but only as “neutral” athletes without any flags or insignia of their home nations. That compromise didn’t even last 24 hours. Last night, the IPC reversed course and announced that those competitors would be banned from the competition entirely. But is that really fair to the athletes? (NY Post)
In a stunning reversal, Russian and Belarusian athletes have been banned from the Winter Paralympic Games for their countries’ roles in the war in Ukraine, the International Paralympic Committee said Thursday in Beijing.
The about-face comes less than 24 hours after the IPC on Wednesday announced it would allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete when the Games open on Friday, but only as neutral athletes with colors, flags and other national symbols removed.
The IPC received immediate criticism for its initial decision. It was termed a betrayal that sent the wrong message to Russia’s leadership. The IPC also said it was evident that many athletes would refuse to compete against Russians or Belarusians, creating chaos for the Paralympics and damaging the reputation.
Vladimir Putin, his cronies, and the Russian government that keeps him in power richly deserve all of the economic pain that global sanctions are raining down on them. With that said, I think we need to be mindful of precisely who is being impacted by the various bans and sanctions that are being imposed. In this case, you’re not really banning Russia (as a nation) from the games. You’re banning the athletes. And if the optics of banning athletes from international competition isn’t unsettling enough, you’re banning disabled athletes.
To a certain extent, I can sympathize with the committee because they had what may have turned out to be a riot brewing among the various teams. Some of the other competitors were threatening to refuse to compete against the Russian and Belarusian athletes. That would have led to chaos and left an asterisk next to the names of the eventual winners. But if those who were objecting could have been reasoned with, perhaps that scenario could have been avoided.
It’s also worth asking what specific damages are being done to the people who are supposed to be the targets of these actions, i.e. Putin, etc. I suppose you can say that athletes bringing home medals lend a certain amount of prestige to their home country, but you can’t pay the government’s bills with prestige. It’s not as if Russia and Belarus are making any money off of this. In fact, sending an Olympic team to the games actually costs money. So what sort of pressure will this ban apply to Putin’s government in terms of modifying his behavior in Ukraine? (Assuming it’s even possible to modify his behavior.)
I thought the compromise of not allowing the athletes to fly the flags of their nations and putting them in neutral uniforms was good enough. That’s still a bit of a blow to the competitors who might see it as a badge of shame, but at least they would get to compete. Banning them entirely just seems like it might be a bridge too far. But with the games slated to begin tomorrow, I suppose it’s a bit too late to find a better solution now.