International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach has pleaded with politicians to “keep politics and sports apart” while defending the IOC’s controversial plans to include Russian and Belarusian athletes at the Paris 2024 Games.
“If politics decides who can take part in a competition, then sport and athletes become tools of politics,” Bach said during an hours-long speech in German on Wednesday in Essen, Germany.
“It is then impossible for sport to transfer its uniting powers. We must be politically neutral but not apolitical. We know well that politics rules the world. We know well that our decisions have political implications and we have to include that in our thinking,” he added.
“But we should not make the mistake of raising ourselves to referees of political disputes because we will be crushed by these political powers.”
In February, the IOC reiterated its condemnation of the war in Ukraine, one year on from the beginning of the invasion, in a statement.
According to Reuters, Bach went on to say, “Ukraine wants, and this is a direct quote ‘the total isolation of all Russians,’” as some people in the audience applauded.
“It is a dilemma for us and a completely new situation. If we exclude athletes for political reasons, we face the decline of the international sporting system,” Bach said.
“We feel, suffer with and understand the Ukrainian people and athletes. On the other hand, we have, as a global organization, a responsibility towards human rights and the Olympic Charter,” he added, according to Reuters.
In January, the IOC outlined a multi-step plan for Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate at the upcoming 2024 Summer Games in Paris and the 2026 Winter Games in Milan, which was met by criticism from the United States, Canada and most European countries.
Last month, the US and more than 30 other “like-minded” countries backed a proposed ban of Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing in international sports, according to a joint statement.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s sports minister said in January the country would not rule out boycotting the Olympics if Russian and Belarusian athletes are allowed to compete at Paris 2024.
On Thursday, World Athletics president Sebastian Coe announced Russian and Belarusian athletes will still be excluded from World Athletics Series Events “for the foreseeable future” due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, reaffirming the organization’s March 2022 decision.
The IOC has previously come under strong criticism from Ukrainian tennis player and Olympic bronze medalist Elina Svitolina, as well as former boxing champion Wladimir Klitschko, who won a gold for Ukraine at the 1996 Olympics.
“We must stick to banning Russian and Belarusian athletes, sending a strong message worldwide that we are united in the sanctions imposed against Russia and Belarus and that there are consequences for the heinous acts of their governments,” said Svitolina.
CNN’s David Close contributed reporting.