International Olympic officials on Tuesday delayed a final decision on whether to allow athletes from Russia and Belarus to participate at the Paris Summer Games next year, pushing uncertainty about their eligibility into a crucial period of Olympic qualifiers and doing little to ease the objections of dozens of governing bodies that want the countries to remain sporting outcasts while they wage war in Ukraine.
The International Olympic Committee did, however, create a path through which athletes from Russia and Belarus could attempt to qualify for next year’s Games. That came in a suite of recommendations issued to its member sports federations that will allow individuals from the two countries to participate in international events as neutrals, potentially earning places at the Games even as their countries remain barred.
The recommendations will do little to appease the dozens of national Olympic committees, including those of the United States and other powers in the Olympic movement, that have objected publicly to the participation of athletes from Russia and also Belarus, which has provided a staging ground for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The absence of a final decision will keep alive the prospect of an Olympic boycott by Ukraine, whose officials have threatened to stay away from the Paris Games if Russians are allowed to take part.
The I.O.C.’s recommendations to federations to readmit individual athletes from Russia and Belarus were an about-face from its position last year. In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Olympic officials had joined most of the governing bodies in world sports in making Russia and Belarus sporting pariahs, with their athletes and teams barred, with minor exceptions, from international sporting events large and small. (Russian teams would remain barred in team sports under the recommendations.)
Within minutes of the I.O.C. announcement, Nancy Faeser, the interior minister of Germany, an Olympic powerhouse and the home country of the I.O.C. president, Thomas Bach, strongly criticized the decision to reopen the door to athletes from Russian and Belarus as “a slap in the face for Ukrainian athletes.”
But at almost the same moment, Bach offered a clear sign of the organization’s willingness to welcome athletes from Russia and Belarus even though the invasion has now entered its second year, and as United Nations investigators and the International Criminal Court have declared war crimes have been committed in Ukraine.
Bach was pointedly asked by a Ukrainian journalist at an online news conference why the Olympic committee had changed its stance. He cited two reasons: The first, he said, was the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in some international sporting events, notably tennis tournaments, where they have come up against Ukrainian opponents.
The second, he said, was the declaration by two United Nations officials advising the committee that barring athletes from the Games because of their nationality would be a “flagrant violation” of their human rights. One of those officials, Alexandra Xanthaki, the U.N. special rapporteur for cultural rights, courted controversy this week by declaring that even military personnel actively involved in the invasion should be allowed to participate in the Olympics as neutrals provided they did not participate in war crimes.
The Olympic committee’s recommendations stopped short of endorsing that position, which was met by fury by a Ukrainian athlete representative when Xanthaki made her suggestion on a call with Olympic representatives and in social media posts. Instead, the organization said active military personnel should continue to be barred from international sports, a prohibition that it also recommended for any individuals that had actively promoted Russia’s cause. It also endorsed the continued ban of Russian and Belarusian symbols, including uniforms, flags and anthems.
Dozens of Russian athletes are part of the country’s military or have been trained by it. Others have been conscripted to its cause since the start of the invasion. And according to a review by The Associated Press, the country’s Olympic success is inextricably linked to its military: Of the 71 medals won by Russian athletes at the last Summer Olympics, in Tokyo in 2021, 45 were collected by athletes affiliated with the Central Sports Club of the Army.
Still, Bach made a point of reading out a portion of the U.N. rapporteur’s advice calling for the inclusion of athletes at the Olympics from all countries regardless of their nationalities. “This clear statement cannot be neglected by the Olympic movement,” he said.
Under Bach’s tenure, the I.O.C. faced criticism for its attitude toward Russia even before the war, with scrutiny over its decision to allow neutrals to participate in the Olympics after the discovery of a huge, state-sanctioned Russian doping program, which corrupted several international events, and then a second attempt by the country to block investigators from discovering how many Russian athletes had been a part of the program.
After Bach was reminded on Tuesday that the first person to call to congratulate him after he was elected to lead the I.O.C. in 2013 was Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, he said Putin was quickly stripped of the Olympic Order after Russia mounted its invasion. “We have been accused by the Russian side of being agents of Ukraine, and the Ukrainian side as promoters of war,” he said.
The fate of Russian and Belarusian athletes seeking to compete in international events — or which competitions would allow them to return — remained unclear. Track and field’s governing body, for example, last week extended an indefinite prohibition on all Russian and Belarusian athletes “for the foreseeable future due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
A spokesman for the governing body, World Athletics, said on Tuesday that the federation was working to ensure that other organizations followed its lead, specifically the Olympic Council of Asia. That organization, at the urging of the I.O.C., has been laying the groundwork for including athletes from Belarus and Russia in competitions at the Asian Games later this year. The idea was for their performances in that event to serve as qualification opportunities for the Olympics in Paris.
The World Athletics spokesman said, however, that the organization was now trying to persuade organizers of the Asian Games to bar athletes from Russia and Belarus and at the same time make clear that only the results of Asian athletes would count toward qualification for the Olympics. Russia and Belarus are part of the European sports confederations, where an overwhelming number of countries remain opposed to their participation.
The I.O.C.’s efforts to ease the bans on competitors from Russia and Belarus have also met significant resistance elsewhere. In February, a group of sports ministers and government officials from more than 30 countries, including representatives of some of the most prominent countries in the Olympic movement, urged the I.O.C. to bar athletes from Russia and Belarus from international sports as long as their countries were engaged in the war in Ukraine.
The group of countries, which included the United States, Britain, Germany and dozens of others, said the current I.O.C. policy of allowing athletes from the two countries was effectively worthless because “there are serious concerns about how feasible it is for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete on a neutral basis given they are directly funded and supported by their states.”
Matt Futterman contributed reporting.