A U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) press conference this week provided the first hints of a possible return to international competition for Russian athletes.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) asked all international federations to prevent Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing internationally — a protective measure, they insisted — after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. But according to USOPC chair Susanne Lyons, the IOC’s stance could be softening soon.
“This Olympic Movement is really built on the notion that athletes from around the world should be able to come together in peace and be able to compete with respect, equality and friendship,” Lyons said Thursday after the USOPC Board meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday. “And we very much espouse that. That’s really the foundational reason why we have all of these athletes doing what they do.
“So, we know that the IOC is beginning to think about whether there is a pathway back for the Russian athletes,” she added. “They are beginning to reach out to all of their stakeholders, including the NOCs, the International Federations to get input on that topic. So I don’t think any decisions have been made yet, but I think all of us feel that at some point in time, the individual athletes should not be the victims of whatever their individual governments (do, regardless of) political or other tensions are around the world.
“So I think, inevitably, there will be a desire to see athletes who happen to reside in Russia, come back and be part of competitions, but what the timing is and what the pathway looks like is to be determined.”
The comments signal a slight change of tone, but the IOC has actually never directly sanctioned Russian sports bodies such as the Russian Olympic Committee during the recent conflict in Ukraine.
Asked about how Russia’s detainment of American basketball star Brittney Griner impacts those conversations, USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland responded that she’s “not sure they are directly related” from a policy perspective. Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was sentenced to nine years of jail time in Russia last month for smuggling less than a gram of cannabis oil into the country back in February.
“I think that while there may be a natural, sort of conflation of those issues, the reality is the conversation around Russian athletes is around how you actually separate, and try to avoid punishing Russian athletes for the decisions of the government,” Hirshland said. “And I think that’s the motivation of conversation.
“But it’s not lost on anyone in the United States that she’s there and it’s really very top-of-mind for all of us,” she added. “So it’s hard not to conflate the issues and it’s hard not to bring them together, even though I think from a policy perspective, I’m not sure they are directly related.”