Zelenskyy says Olympics chief should visit Ukraine front line

Ukrainian president invited the IOC chief to visit Bakhmut in spat over ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at a news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attend a news conference with European Council President Charles Michel on January 19, 2023 [File: Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has invited International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach to visit the front-line city of Bakhmut, where Ukraine’s soldiers are engaged in vicious battle with Russian forces.

Zelenskyy extended the provocative invitation on Friday after the Olympic committee said a “pathway” should be explored to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in the 2024 Paris Games.

Russia and its ally Belarus have been excluded from competing in most Olympic sports since the invasion of Ukraine.

“I invite Mr. Bach to Bakhmut. So that he could see with his own eyes that neutrality does not exist,” Zelenskyy said in a speech shared on social media.

“It is obvious that any neutral banner of Russian athletes is stained with blood,” he said.

Bakhmut, in the eastern region of Donetsk, is currently the epicentre of the fighting in Ukraine.


Bach said on Friday that Russian and Belarusian athletes could hope to compete at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, but only if they compete under a neutral flag.

The mission is to bring together athletes from all over the world, “especially when their countries are in conflict,” Bach said during a press briefing in the German town of Oberhof.

“The principle that has been laid down is: No Russian or Belarusian athletes,” Bach explained, but “individual, neutral athletes from these countries without any identification with their nationality” could “possibly” compete next year.

However, he stressed that the IOC is just “at the beginning of very detailed consultations” on the matter.

Russian forces have been trying to take control of Bakhmut for months in what Kyiv has described as some of the bloodiest battles since the start of Russia’s offensive on February 24 last year.

Zelenskyy said “it is impossible not to be disappointed” by the stance of the IOC chief.

“I spoke with him more than once and never heard how he was going to protect sports from war propaganda if he returned Russian athletes to international competitions,” Zelenskyy said.

“We will do everything for the world to protect sport from the political and any other influence of a terrorist state, which is simply inevitable if Russian athletes compete.”

In a statement on Wednesday, the IOC said that its executive board met to consider the issue, and “the vast majority of the participants” had expressed that “no athlete should be prevented from competing just because of their passport” and that “governments must not decide which athletes can participate in which competition and which athletes cannot”.

Ukrainian Sports Minister Vadym Gutzeit has informed the IOC that his country is planning to boycott the 2024 Games if Russian and Belarusian athletes are allowed to compete.

“There can’t be agreements with representatives of terrorist countries,” Gutzeit said.

“I hope that all federations, athletes and the whole world have been paying close attention and that we don’t have to resort to this extreme means,” Gutzeit warned, referring to an Olympic boycott by Ukraine.

Bach said on Friday that excluding athletes solely on the basis of their passport does not meet human rights requirements. If exceptions were made and athletes holding a Russian or Belarusian passport were excluded from the Olympic Games, this would create “an enormously dangerous precedent for world sport,” Bach argued, adding that other countries were also affected by wars.

“What do you say to an athlete from Yemen, from Iraq, from Libya, from Armenia, from Azerbaijan, from Ethiopia?”

The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) on Thursday offered Russian and Belarusian athletes the chance to compete in this year’s Asian Games.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies