Estonian Olympic chief: 'Russian athletes should return later, not sooner'

Siim Sukles, secretary general of the Estonian Olympic Committee
Siim Sukles, secretary general of the Estonian Olympic Committee Source: ERR

Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), has suggested that Russian and Belarusian athletes should gradually be allowed to return to international sporting competitions. In light of Bach's proposal, Head of the International Ski Federation (FIS) Michel Vion also said, that it may be possible for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete under neutral flags, in the FIS World Championships, which take place in December. Siim Sukles, secretary general of the Estonian Olympic Committee, and sports journalist Ott Järvela discussed the issue on ETV morning show "Terevisioon."

"Top-level sport is also a political field, where different political forces are at play," said Järvela.  "They are not the kind we are used to seeing on the (overtly) political scene, but there are movements made here and there. There are significant amount of people, who want to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes - admittedly as neutrals, that is without their national flags or national anthems - to return in greater numbers to the competitive arena, " he explained.

"This initiative came from the International Olympic Committee a couple of weeks ago, it was first leaked in the US media and now the Secretary General of the International Ski Federation, Michel Vion, has been quite explicit about what the plan is. The plan is supposedly to try to get (Russian and Belarusian athletes) back into competition in some form, from December," said Järvela.

"No decision has been made. Two weeks ago, IOC President Thomas Bach held a video conference with (representatives of) all the Olympic Committees. And there he threw the idea out there," said Siim Sukles, secretary general of the Estonian Olympic Committee.

"Which is actually right. The the fact is, that Russian and Belarusian athletes will eventually come back to sport. It's just a matter of time. That's why Bach said we'd get used to the fact that they'll be coming back. However, he didn't talk about a timeframe. It's just that now the ball has started rolling, some are talking about December, some are talking about next spring. But the war is not endless, I hope it won't last for a hundred years, so it is clear that (eventually) Russian and Belarusian athletes will come back. It's just our view is, that it's better that this happens later, rather than sooner."

In recent weeks, more decisions have been made to block the return of Russian athletes to high-level sporting competition. European football governing body UEFA announced, that Russia would not be allowed to participate in the 2024 European Championships, while Russian and Belarusian athletes are also banned from competing by both the International Biathlon Union (IBU) and International Skating Union (ISU).

"As football plays a major role in the sporting world and in Europe, the fact that UEFA took such a bold decision is a good example for other sports to follow. However, other sports don't usually have the financial autonomy of UEFA and football. Why has Russia been allowed to cheat so much in sports over the years? After all, they've ruined several Olympic Games with their doping scandals, but without any really effective punishment, without Russian athletes being excluded from the Olympics, for example," said Järvela.

"The reason is, that they still have a lot of power, which they have built up over the years in international sport through softer means. There are quite a number of international sports federations that depend on Russian money in one way or another. That's how they have built their position in international sport."

Siim Sukles and Ott Järvela Source: ERR

Asked which countries on the IOC video call were in favor of Bach's suggestion that Russian and Belarusian athletes return to top-level sport, and which were against, Sukles replied, that there were a range of views, emphasizing that the IOC itself does not have the final say on who does and does not compete in sporting events.

"We have to understand that the IOC manages the whole world, which means that there are very developed countries and lesser developed countries (involved)," Sukles replied.

"There was not really that much support for the president's ideas from Europe. It was (mostly) those from the other continents, whose representatives said that his ideas were right. There was no great show of enthusiasm from European representatives, but there was no public show of opposition either. Evidently, video conferences like this, in front of the whole world, are not the place to start airing grievances," Sukles said.

"After all, the IOC is only responsible for managing the Olympic Games, and simply makes recommendations to the (sporting) federations. It is up to the federations themselves to decide whether someone can compete or not," Sukles explained.

"If we think back to February, it was a surprise for me, that the IOC made a statement saying that Russian and Belarusian athletes have no place in the world sport system, just ten days after the war started. It was one of the quickest reactions we have ever seen from the IOC. And then the federations started to follow suit."

"I would argue that, at that time, (some) political circles and countries realized, that a very clear decision had been taken, and so then the sanctions started to come. Maybe the IOC was one of the first to respond to this war," Sukles said. "And now it's also clear that Russia and Belarus have a lot of influence and money in sport, and that this is starting to come into play. There are 205 countries in the world, (and it seems to some) that only (the views of) those countries that take this war seriously are being counted. (Russia's war in Ukraine) is not the biggest problem facing African and Asian countries. And it's always the main concern of such a big world organization (like the IOC) that everyone is treated equally," Sukles explained.

Järvela listed shooting, chess, weightlifting and fencing as among the international federations under heavy Russian influence, with Uzbek-born Russian businessman Alizher Usmanov amongst the biggest donors. "There are some areas where Russia's contribution is extremely large. Whether these sports have already taken any steps in that direction is yet to be seen. They're waiting for some kind of guidance to come, and they're not going to do anything before then. But, as we heard from Bach, that guidance could arrive at some point during the fall," Järvela said.

"Tennis, motorsport and martial arts are still open (to Russian athletes) at the moment, and gymnastics is flirting with the idea. There are only three sports right now that have clearly said they can take part," Sukles said.

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Editor: Michael Cole

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