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Power, Not Peace: The Achilles’ Heel of the Olympic Games

February 27, 2023
Timothy Sisk


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Timothy Sisk, a professor of international and comparative politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, ponders the question of whether the International Olympic Committee should allow Russia to participate in the next Olympics. 

The row between International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky over potential Russian and Belarussian athlete participation at Paris 2024 exposes the Achilles’ Heel of the Olympic Games: the peace-promising celebrations are inescapably ensnared in nation-state power politics.

The IOC announced on January 25 a proposal to facilitate participation in the 2024 Olympic Games for individual athletes from Russia (and close ally Belarus) individually and neutrally in the Paris games. The statement reversed an IOC Executive Board decision from February 28, 2022, to impose more sweeping participation sanctions on Russia following the Ukraine invasion.

The International Paralympic Committee announced on January 23 that it would “follow” the IOC decision for the paralympic events, with President Andrew Parsons noting that “We wish to reiterate that we hope and pray that the conflict comes to an end, that no more lives are taken, and that we can run sports and politics separately.” Parsons gave a rousing denunciation of the Ukraine invasion from the podium in his opening-ceremonies speech as the Russian tanks rolled toward Kyiv, demanding “dialogue and diplomacy, not war and hate.”

The potential of Russian athletes participating at the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris while the horrors and war crimes unleashed by Russia in Ukraine and documented by a United Nations independent commission continue to unfold would constitute, Zelensky said, “a manifestation of violence.” Addressing a February 10 meeting of 35 foreign ministers convened to consider a boycott if Russians were to appear in the Olympic arena, he said, “If the Olympic sports were killings and missile strikes, then you know which national team would occupy the first place.” Reversing her earlier stance, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said she supports Zelensky’s call and journeyed to Kyiv on February 9 in solidarity.

Olympic powerhouses including the US, UK, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand together with Nordic and Baltic states are drawing a line in the beach-volleyball sand against Russian and Belarussian participation at Paris. Some want to allow for a “dissident team” from these countries to be formed.

In a slope-side appearance at the World Alpine Skiing Championships in Courchevel on February 12, Bach defended the IOC’s position: “No, history will show who is doing more for peace.”

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.