March 1 (AFP) – In a sweeping move to isolate and condemn Russia after invading Ukraine, the International Olympic Committee urged sports bodies on Monday to exclude the country’s athletes and officials from international events.
The IOC said it was needed to “protect the integrity of global sports competitions and for the safety of all the participants”.
The decision opened the way for FIFA, the governing body of soccer, to exclude Russia from a World Cup qualifying playoff match on 24 March. Poland has refused to play the scheduled game against Russia.
The Olympic body’s call also applied to athletes and official from Belarus, which has abetted Russia’s invasion by allowing its territory to be used to station troops and launch military attacks.
The IOC said it acted “with a heavy heart” but the impact of war on Ukrainian sports outweighed the potential damage done to athletes from Russia and Belarus.
It was not a total blanket ban by the IOC. Where exclusion was “not possible on short notice for organizational or legal reasons,” then teams from Russia and Belarus should compete as neutral athletes with no national flag, anthem or symbols, including at the upcoming Winter Paralympics in Beijing.
The IOC also withdrew the Olympic Order it gave Vladimir Putin in 2001, and other Russian officials since.
Sports bodies across Europe had already moved against Russia on Monday by refusing to host or play against teams from the country.
Finland wants the Russian hockey team to be banned from the men’s world championships it will host in May, the Swiss soccer federation said its women’s team will not play Russia in July at the European Championship, and German soccer club Schalke said it had decided to end its longstanding partnership with Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom.
FIFA declined to ban Russia from the World Cup over the weekend. Instead, the soccer body said the country’s national team will have to compete as Football Union of Russia as punishment. Besides Poland, both Sweden and the Czech Republic, Russia’s next potential opponents, have said they would refuse to take the field against them.
“The Swedish Football Association is disappointed with FIFA’s decision but is determined to continue to work together with other federations to cancel Russia’s matches in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers,” the body said Monday, citing the “illegal and deeply unjust invasion of Ukraine.”
The World Cup is scheduled to begin on 21 November in Qatar.
In European club soccer, Russian team Spartak Moscow is still scheduled to play next week in the Europa League against German club Leipzig. European governing body UEFA allowed Spartak to take its place in the round of 16 draw on Friday, one day after Putin ordered the invasion to start.
UEFA called a meeting of its executive committee for later Monday and is expected to exclude Russian teams from its competitions based on the IOC’s announcement.
There is precedent for removing Russian teams from sports. In 1992, following United Nations sanctions, FIFA and UEFA expelled Yugoslavia from its competitions when war broke out in the Balkans.
Besides Schalke’s effort to drop Gazprom as a partner, UEFA is also expected to see if it can nullify its sponsorship deals with the company. Gazprom sponsors both the Champions League and the European Championship.
FIFA has attracted the most criticism among sports bodies for allowing Russia to continue competing, at least for now, in the World Cup qualifying playoffs. It has kept open the option of a ban.
FIFA attempted to compromise by ordering Russia to play at neutral venues without its flag and anthem and under the name of its federation — the Football Union of Russia.
That aligns with sanctions imposed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in December 2020 to punish Russia for state-backed doping and cover-ups of cheating, and applied at last year’s Tokyo Olympics and this year’s Winter Games in Beijing.
The Russian soccer team was already due to play under those conditions if they qualified for the World Cup because of the doping scandals. FIFA’s decision to apply the conditions to a regional sports event — European qualification games — is the only element of punishment for the war.
If Russia were to play Poland as scheduled on March 24 and win, the team would then face either Sweden or the Czech Republic on 29 March.
Swedish soccer federation president Karl-Erik Nilsson, who is also the senior vice president at UEFA, said Sunday he expected a “sharper stance” from FIFA.
Polish soccer federation president Cezary Kulesza said Sunday it was “totally unacceptable” that FIFA had not immediately expelled Russia from World Cup qualifying and said Poland is “not interested in participating in this game of appearances.”
Another of Russia’s future opponents, Albania, also said Sunday it would not play against that country in any sports. Russia and Albania are scheduled to meet twice in June in the UEFA Nations League soccer tournament. The group also includes Iceland and Israel.
In hockey, the sport’s governing body has come under pressure from Finland and Switzerland to ban Russia and Belarus, which are both due to play at the world championships in May in Helsinki and Tampere.
Finnish Hockey Association chairman Harri Nummela said in a statement Monday it had talks with the Zurich-based IIHF to exclude the two countries from the sport internationally.