Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, recalls how sport can be a powerful symbol of peace and understanding:
“Give peace a chance”… was the call I made to political leaders around the world in my opening speech for the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games. In my closing speech, I expressed the hope that these leaders would be inspired by the “example of solidarity and peace” given by the athletes.
Just four days later, all our hopes for Ukraine were dashed. Horrifying images and reports of the Russian army’s invasion of Ukraine shocked the world. Every day we are more devastated by seeing so much human suffering, anxiety, despair and destruction.
Meanwhile, millions of Ukrainians, mostly women and children, have had to flee brutal acts of war to other countries. Our hearts, our feelings, our emotions go out to all these innocent victims.
The world community reacted in an unprecedented way to what is widely considered a turning point in world history. The United Nations General Assembly has deplored the aggression of the Russian Federation in the strongest terms and by a most exceptional majority. Only three other countries voted with Russia and Belarus against this resolution. Acts of solidarity by millions of people and sanctions by governments around the world followed.
The Olympic Movement immediately strongly condemned the violation of the Olympic truce by the Russian government, urged the relocation of all sporting events scheduled in Russia or Belarus and called for no national symbols of any kind of these country is displayed at sporting events.
In doing so, we demonstrated our solidarity with the Ukrainian people. We shared the emotions with people around the world who, like us, call for peace. At the same time, we had to share the harsh reality with all of them.
On the one hand, we have heavy hearts. On the other hand, we must keep a cool head to preserve our Olympic values which have stood the test of time. The invasion changed the world. The invasion did not change our values. The invasion has reinforced our commitment to our values of peace, solidarity and non-discrimination in sport for any reason.
What has changed, however, are the ways to protect and promote them. This situation obliges us – and gives us the opportunity – to clearly define the principles and values that constitute the Olympic Movement and guide us. The political consequences of this war and the respective political sanctions confront us with the extremely difficult dilemma of not being able to fully apply these principles at all times.
Our guiding principle is peace. This mission was entrusted to us by our founder Pierre de Coubertin. When he revived the Olympic Games and created the IOC in 1894, with the full support of the then International Peace Movement, he said: “If the institution of the Olympic Games were to prosper, it might become a factor powerful to ensure universal peace. ”
This means that sport, and in particular the Olympic Games, can be a powerful symbol of peace and understanding. They can be an inspiration to show how peaceful the world could be if we all play by the same rules and each other. Everyone in the Olympic community wants us to be more than a symbol and a source of inspiration. But we had to learn once again the hard lessons that sport cannot create peace, and that decisions about war and peace are the exclusive purview of politics.
To be at least a powerful symbol, to be an inspiring demonstration of a peaceful – perhaps utopian – world, to be a credible antipode to war, Olympic sport needs the participation of all athletes who accept the rules, even and especially if their countries in the “real” world are in confrontation or at war.
A competition between athletes from only like-minded nations is not a credible symbol of peace, it is just another sporting event. This is our role: to set a counter-example to war and division – not to accept, to follow and to deepen the divisions between peoples. We must be united in the Olympic Movement; we must show solidarity together to carry out our unifying mission in all circumstances.
These values, these principles and this mission have guided us in the past and will guide us in the future, recognizing the fundamental historical changes in the world brought about by the Russian invasion and their unprecedented political consequences.
This means that we will continue to denounce the people and organizations responsible for this war in violation of the Olympic Truce. Therefore, sports competitions or events should not take place on the territory of the Russian Federation or the Republic of Belarus. No national or state symbol of any kind of these countries may be displayed at any event organized by the Olympic Movement.
We will not fall into the trap of the cheap argument that this would be a politicization of sport, going against the Olympic Charter which requires political neutrality. Anyone who so blatantly violates the Olympic truce by political and even military means cannot denounce the consequences as politically motivated.
This clear exposure of the Russian government and its members as responsible also recognizes that this war was not started by the Russian people, Russian athletes or Russian sports organizations. But we are faced with an insoluble dilemma in this regard because we have at the same time the great responsibility to ensure the integrity, fairness and security of our competitions.
In these unique circumstances, we cannot fully assume this responsibility, we cannot guarantee the integrity of the competitions. With the recommendation of the IOC Executive Board, we have brought clarity to our stakeholders, avoided divisions and helped them maintain unity. Otherwise, we would have to face the situation where Russian or Belarusian athletes competed for titles, while Ukrainian athletes could not, because of the war in their country.
Otherwise, we would have had to experience the politicization of sports competitions by athletes or teams, some of them being encouraged by third parties. We also had to take into account the security risks for Russian and Belarusian athletes participating in international competitions, due to the strong anti-Russian and anti-Belarusian sentiments following the invasion.
For all these reasons, we urge all sports organizations around the world to protect the integrity, fairness and security of their competitions by banning Russian and Belarusian athletes from participating or, in special circumstances, at least prohibiting any identification of their nationality. This protective approach is also shared by the International Sports Federations chaired by Russian nationals.
In this context, we will continue to monitor the attitude of Russian or Belarusian athletes and their sports organizations regarding their commitment to peace as enshrined in the Olympic Charter. In doing so, we will have to take into account the situation in Russia where, according to the law, a commitment to peace is punishable by a prison sentence of up to
15 years old.
It goes without saying that we will continue our close consultations with all stakeholders of the Olympic Movement. I would also like to strongly encourage you to take the initiative to contact the IOC with any questions or comments you may have.
At the same time, we will strengthen our solidarity efforts with the Ukrainian Olympic community. Many of them live in Ukraine in unbearable conditions, many of them had to flee. We are overwhelmed by the show of solidarity from the entire Olympic Movement.
To make this assistance as effective as possible, we not only created a solidarity fund, but we also called on our IOC member, Sergii Bubka, in his capacity as President of the NOC of Ukraine, to lead our efforts. Its working group has already provided assistance to many of our Ukrainian Olympic friends through the 25 NOC regional offices and other NOC institutions.
They are in contact with a number of NOCs whose countries have already hosted more than two million refugees and offer their assistance in the best Olympic spirit. In this same spirit, we do not forget the other Olympic communities affected by war, situations of war or acts of aggression. We continue to assist them, as in Ukraine, via their respective NOCs.
The war in Ukraine is so unique because of the global response to it and its profound consequences for the world, making it a turning point in world history. It also creates unique challenges for our Olympic Movement.
We sincerely hope that these challenges can be overcome as soon as possible and peace can be restored. It does not make us forget the victims of too many other wars in our fragile world. In solidarity with all of them, please join me in calling, in advocating, in calling on all political leaders around the world:
“Give peace a chance!”