Months out from Paris Olympics, Russians are qualifying in some sports and absent in others

With just six months to go until the Paris Olympics, it’s still not clear if Russians will be competing and, if so, how many.

Russians are qualifying for Olympic spots as “neutral athletes” in combat events such as judo and wrestling, but not in some of the Games’ highest-profile events like track and field, swimming and gymnastics.

Russia is unhappy its competitors will compete without the national flag or anthem, and President Vladimir Putin said last month Russia was yet to decide whether to send athletes to the Paris Games, which start on July 26.

Ukrainian athletes are angered by what they see as some sports bodies bending the rules to allow Russians who support the war or have ties to the military to compete as “neutrals.”

If Russians compete in Paris, there will be tension, just like at the world fencing championships, an Olympic qualifier, when Ukrainian fencer Olga Kharlan refused to shake hands after beating Russian “neutral” Anna Smirnova.

Smirnova staged a sitdown protest until the Ukrainian was disqualified, but the International Olympic Committee intervened and granted Kharlan a “unique exception” to compete at the Olympics.

HOW RUSSIANS CAN QUALIFY

The IOC last year set up an “Individual Neutral Athlete” program for athletes from Russia and its military ally Belarus. They both were suspended from most Olympic sports a year earlier over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The process is run by the sports federations which organize their own qualifying competitions. The IOC wants them to exclude Russian and Belarusian athletes who are employed by the military or security services or who posted on social media supporting the war. The multitude of different rules across the Games’ 32 sports mean exact numbers of those with “neutral” status are hard to verify.

The IOC says six Russians and five Belarusians have already qualified for Paris. There are many more qualifying events to come.

The IOC will appoint “independent analysts” for its own vetting, spokesman Mark Adams said last week.

“You can have some confidence that those people who have qualified will have already been through one process and then will be going through a second process run by the IOC but using an independent organization,” Adams said.

Russian Olympic Committee president Stanislav Pozdnyakov told state news agency RIA Novosti on Wednesday he expected “much stricter” conditions and suggested the extra vetting meant the IOC “doesn’t fully trust the international sports federations.”

WHICH SPORTS ARE RUSSIANS COMPETING IN?

Combat sports were especially enthusiastic about bringing back Russian competitors. Judo, fencing, wrestling and taekwondo led the way in admitting “neutral athletes” in 2023 and Russians have regularly competed in their Olympic qualifying events.

Different Russian sports bodies have taken varying approaches to the “neutral athlete” system, and there hasn’t been a final decision from the government. Putin expressed concern in December that the rules could leave too many of Russia’s top athletes “cut out” of the Games.

Influential gymnastics coach Valentina Rodionenko has told Russian media that Russia shouldn’t enter World Cups unless the criteria are relaxed. International Gymnastics Federation records show it’s granted “neutral” status to 30 people from Belarus including athletes, coaches and officials, but no Russians.

There are also no Russians expected to compete at the world swimming championships in Qatar next month, a key Olympic qualifier, though Belarus is set to send five swimmers.

The Russian governing bodies for gymnastics and swimming did not respond to a request for comment on whether any applications were filed for their athletes.

Russia has skipped Olympic weightlifting qualifiers in protest at a demand to sign a declaration which includes a pledge “to abstain from expressing any support to the war.” Belarus has competed in those events.

Track and field never lifted its ban on Russian athletes. The IOC is blocking Russia and Belarus from team sports such as soccer, basketball or volleyball because it argues their involvement should be in “individual” events only, not as part of squads representing the country. Tennis doubles or two-person rowing crews might be approved, though.

UKRAINE’S CONCERNS

Are sports federations following the rules? Ukraine says no.

More than 200 Ukrainian athletes including top soccer player Mykhailo Mudryk and high jump world champion Yaroslava Mahuchikh signed an open letter to French President Emmanuel Macron this month alleging three Russians who qualified for the Olympics as “neutrals” expressed support for the war.

“Allowing athletes from aggressor countries, who openly support Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine, violates the fundamental ethical principles declared by the Olympic Charter,” the letter said.

Ukraine still opposes the IOC push for Russians to compete as neutrals but in July it dropped a policy that forced Ukrainian athletes to boycott events rather than compete against them.

Two Olympic gold medalists in taekwondo accused of posting on social media in support of the war were handed a “probation period” of three months by World Taekwondo but allowed to compete after that. United World Wrestling let three Olympic champions from Russia take part in its world championships because it judged they had been pressured into appearing at a pro-war rally in Moscow attended by Putin.

SWITCHING NATIONALITY

At least some athletes from Russia — and who competed for Russia before the war — could be in Paris on the host French team.

There’s European swimming champion Anastasiia Kirpichnikova, who switched allegiance from Russia to France in April, and Moscow-born Varvara Gracheva, who started representing France in June and has become France’s second-highest ranked tennis player.

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AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed.

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AP Paris Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games

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