The IOC’s Missed Opportunity on its Neutral Athlete Policy

On December 8, 2024, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) released its “strict eligibility conditions” for the participation of individual neutral athletes with Russian and Belarusian nationality in the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. According to the IOC, athletes who qualify and are approved under IOC guidelines would compete with a neutral flag and, by doing so, would not represent their country or any outside organization. These strict eligibility guidelines are part of the IOC’s effort to balance its self-proclaimed responsibility to stand in solidarity with Ukrainian athletes without isolating Russian and Belarusian athletes. This constitutes a notable departure from the IOC’s previous recommendation that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred from international sporting competitions in response to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. As the IOC walks the fine line between supporting Ukrainian athletes affected by the war and including Russian and Belarusian athletes who have little control over their government’s foreign policies, precision is crucial. Precision, though, is lacking in the IOC’s individual-neutral athlete eligibility guidelines. 

Protests Against War in Ukraine 097 – Love Not War – Help Ukraine” by Amaury Laporte licensed under CC BY 2.0DEED

 In its recent policy shift, the IOC notes a distinction between Russian and Belarusian athletes who are active supporters of, if not voluntary contributors to, the Russian offensive in Ukraine and those who are not. The IOC has indicated that the former should be barred from participating in Olympic competitions in order to maintain the sanctity of the Olympic charter, which explicitly outlines opposition to violence as a foundational principle. The IOC has indicated, though, that the latter should not be isolated because of their nationality alone. Here, enter the neutrality conditions. To meet the guidelines definition of neutrality, athletes must not actively support the Russian offensive in Ukraine, must not belong to the military or national security agencies of Russia or Belarus, and must not project any national identifications of these two nations. The IOC statement also stipulates that no state representatives from Russia or Belarus will be invited, as there will be no athletes representing their delegations. 

While these are not necessarily unreasonable criteria, they lack clarity. Based on the limited information released thus far by the IOC, there is no precise definition of what constitutes support for the war, belonging to the military or national security agencies of Russia or Belarus, or national identifications of these two nations. Though these concerns may sound nitpicky, the implications are vital. To illustrate why, we can look at a few relevant “grey area” cases of athlete behaviour. 

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, several Russian and Belarusian athletes have indicated their support for the military offensive by attending rallies, making statements, liking social media posts, and even extending their financial support for the war in differing capacities. Among these behaviours, it is unclear, based on the IOC’s statement, which would disqualify an athlete from potentially being considered for the status of an individual neutral athlete. Even assuming this theoretical gap is filled in, and the IOC decides that athletes who have voiced support for the war in any of these ways will be ineligible, the IOC has made no indication as to how they will investigate such support. Will the IOC do a deep dive into the social media history, political event attendance, and personal statements of all athletes who apply for individual neutral status? In the context of Russia’s significant media suppression and government infringement on social media access, how will the IOC go about tracking down all relevant information, especially when investigating behaviour on platforms only available in Russia, such as the popular VKontakte, a Russian app similar to Instagram and Facebook? Transparency in these areas is crucial for the IOC to maintain its image as an apolitical actor seeking to uphold the sanctity of the Olympic charter. 

The military and national security force criterion is also a complex one. While it may seem fairly straightforward, it can be complicated in the context of Russian athletics where athletes often train with sporting clubs who are funded or contracted by the military. Russian Tokyo Olympic gymnastics gold medalist Angelina Melnikova, for instance, appears not to have commented on the war on her several social media accounts but trains at a gymnastics club funded by the Russian military. She is not alone, as many Russian athletes in sports like gymnastics train under military-funded programs. It is unclear whether the IOC would decline applications from such athletes on the grounds of this criterion. The IOC’s interpretation here could also be crucial in conflicts moving forward, as athletes in several countries worldwide train at facilities funded in some capacity by state or military apparatus. 

Russian Olympic Committee Flag” by Xfigpower is public domain.

The projection of national identifications from Russia and Belarus is, too, a complex issue given Russia’s status in the past three Olympics. Russia has not competed as Russia in the Olympics since 2016 as a punishment for its state-sponsored doping scandal. Nonetheless, the Russian Olympic Committee clearly displayed the national colours on its uniforms and flag, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was played as the committee’s national anthem. While the IOC’s neutrality criteria suggest such blatant outward projection of Russian nationalist symbols would be banned in Paris, the IOC’s history of “slap on the wrist” punishments for Russia in the wake of the largest state-sponsored doping scandal in Olympic history casts doubt.

The IOC risks missing an important opportunity to establish a much-needed precedent on the eligibility of athletes from countries whose leaders attempt to annex other countries. If the IOC establishes strict eligibility guidelines that clearly outline a criteria for athletes from such countries to be considered “neutral”, it could prevent future controversies for the IOC when similar geo-political situations arise. These guidelines would serve as a reference point for the IOC, helping them to remain neutral and be perceived as apolitical. Maintaining the IOC’s image as an apolitical body dedicated to international sport and upholding the Olympic charter is crucial to preserving the Olympics as we know it. 


Edited by Alison Lee.

Featured Image: “Anneaux Olympiques Place Hôtel Ville Esplanade Libération – Paris IV (FR75) – 2021-08-23 – 1” by Chabe01 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED