A file photo taken on September 13, 2017 shows the Olympics Rings on the Trocadero Esplanade near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. (Pic: AFP)
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Picture this. It is the final of the men's singles tennis event, the Russian Daniil Medvedev breaks his opponent's serve, mixing angles with the sparkling freshness of a school boy armed with a brand-new geometry box, as his opponent falls just fractionally off his game, and - a millisecond later - Medvedev is triumphantly celebrating gold.
Farfetched? Barely. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is determined to establish a pathway for the Russian athletes to compete in the French capital. Turns out it won't be deterred by widespread condemnation from Ukrainian athletes, or the expectation that 35 countries, including the UK and United States, will call for a ban.
A year before the Paris Olympics, and nearly a year-and-a-half since Russia-Ukraine war, officials governing many of the sports on the 2024 program are still split on how to treat Russian athletes. Increasingly, various governing bodies are allowing them back into Olympic qualifying competitions as neutral competitors without national flags or anthems. Most sports initially barred Russians from competing soon after the war.
The IOC strongly backs those moves even as the body itself says it hasn't decided if athletes from Russia and ally Belarus can compete at the Paris Games. However, the IOC has delayed action on the one sport whose qualification it runs in-house, boxing.
Most of the sports which have allowed Russians to return also followed IOC advice on its preferred name - 'individual neutral athletes' - and to keep barring those who are under contract with the military or who have supported the war publicly. The IOC also recommends blocking Russia from team sports like soccer or basketball.
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Ukraine is opposed to any Russians competing. Since last year, Ukrainian athletes and national teams have been boycotting competitions which allow Russians back in, a policy enforced in April by a government decree. Activists from Ukraine have been trawling Russian athletes' social media for pro-war posts that could disqualify them from competing. In that vein, let us take a close look at the situation for Russian and Ukrainian athletes in key sports on the Olympic program.
Track and Field
World Athletics excluded athletes from Russia and Belarus from competitions after the Russia-Ukraine war. That remains in place "for the foreseeable future," after a vote of the World Athletics council in March. President Sebastian Coe said at the time that deaths and destruction in Ukraine have only "hardened" his resolve to keep a ban in place.
World Aquatics has to be one of the most important events taking over the sporting landscape in Russia. It has said it favours Russia and Belarus returning to its sports - swimming, diving, water polo, artistic swimming - but set up a task force that won't report back with suggestions until late July. That means no Russians at the world championships this month in Japan.
The big exception among Olympic sports is tennis. The men's and women's tours didn't exclude Russian or Belarusian players when the war began. They even fined tournaments including Wimbledon which did impose restrictions.
Ukrainian players continued competing but often refused to shake hands with Russians or Belarusians. Aryna Sabalenka, who is from Belarus and won the Australian Open in January, has been questioned about her past support for Belarus' authoritarian leader, President Alexander Lukashenko. She has said she does not support the war.
Russian and Belarusian players still can't enter national team competitions like the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup. The International Tennis Federation hasn't made a final decision on the Olympics but has plenty of time because qualification is decided by the June 2024 world rankings.
Gymnasts from Russia and Belarus will be allowed to take part in sanctioned competitions as "individual neutral athletes" from the start of 2024. That timetable pushed their return beyond the world championships in early October in Belgium.
Russian gymnasts have been some of the most vocal supporters of the war. Days after the Russia-Ukraine began, Ivan Kuliak wore a pro-war "Z" symbol on a competition podium while standing next to a Ukrainian athlete. He was suspended for a year. Other Russian gymnasts appeared on stage at a rally in support of the war, and Olympic gold medalist Nikita Nagornyy heads a military youth organisation in Russia.
This is the one sport the IOC has total control over, but that doesn't mean a quick decision. The IOC is running Olympic boxing in Paris and qualifiers in-house after a long-running feud with the International Boxing Association and its Russian president. Qualifiers were held at the European Games in June but the host nation, Poland, refused to allow any Russian athletes. A plan to qualify Russians via the Asian Games has been suggested but not confirmed. That could mean any Russian return only happens at two last-chance qualifying tournaments in early 2024.
Sports like fencing, judo and taekwondo have seen some of the most bitter disputes. Ukraine boycotted the world championships in both judo and taekwondo, taking a big hit to its Olympic qualifying hopes, after Russians were allowed to compete. In judo the "neutral" delegation of Russian athletes included some previously listed by the Defense Ministry as holding military ranks. The International Judo Federation, which had last year opposed excluding any Russians, said all the Russian competitors were employed at a state sports training facility.
Ukraine is also boycotting some events at the fencing world championships in Italy, another key Olympic qualifier. The International Fencing Federation - whose former president, Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, said last year he was stepping aside from his duties - has been a strong supporter of reintroducing Russian and Belarusian fencers this year. Competition organisers in several European countries cancelled their events in protests, disrupting the Olympic qualifying calendar, and the European Championships were stripped of their status as a qualifier when Poland refused to allow Russians to compete
Don't expect to see Russian teams competing in soccer, volleyball, basketball or handball at the Paris Olympics. The IOC still backs excluding Russia from team sports and no Olympic sport has yet defied that regulation. In some events, like men's basketball and soccer, Russia has already missed its last chance to qualify. The IOC also recommends a ban on "team events in individual sports" like relay races or the team all-around in gymnastics.
Russia is boycotting weightlifting events after its team refused to sign a waiver accepting the conditions for "neutral" status, including a promise to "continue to abstain from expressing any support to the war." Belarusian athletes signed and are competing.
Some sports like archery have delayed things further. World Archery is exploring plans for a Russian return but said in February it would be "very unlikely" this year, potentially restricting Russia to a limited number of events in the months just before the Olympics.
Canoeing is planning to allow Russians back in some Olympic qualifiers but is giving the local organisers of each competition a veto. Rowing will only allow single sculls and pairs, no larger Russian crews.