Ministers from 35 countries recently met to discuss a proposed ban on Russian athletes in the 2024 Olympic games. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky joined the meeting and dramatically stated, “If there’s an Olympic sport with killings and missile strikes, you know which team would take first place.”
The Russian military has indeed inflicted tragedy on Ukraine. However, Zelensky’s remarks also highlight a disturbing double standard regarding state violence and terror. The destructive wars and drone strikes the U.S. has waged since September 11, 2001, would easily put America in first place in any competition of “killings and missile strikes.” Two other close U.S. allies could challenge Russia as contenders for the silver or bronze medal: Saudi Arabia (with U.S. help) for turning Yemen into a post-apocalyptic wasteland replete with disease and famine; and Israel, for its wars on Gaza and killings of Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Although the Watson Institute at Brown University calculates the number of dead civilians due to direct or indirect U.S. military operations in Iraq to be between 275,000 and 306,000 (compared to a UN estimated 7000 deaths in Ukraine) a ministers meeting has never been called to ban U.S. athletes. Moreover, the U.S. government has never received anything close to the tongue lashing that British sports minister, Lucy Frazer, leveled against Russia on Twitter: “I made the UK’s position very clear: As long as Putin continues his barbaric war, Russia and Belarus must not be represented at the Olympics.” This is not to justify Putin’s tactics in Ukraine; they most certainly are brutal. Rather, the question is why the U.S., whose “military forces have been engaged in unauthorized hostilities in many more countries than the Pentagon has disclosed to Congress” has not been deemed “barbaric” enough to restrict U.S. athletes from international competitions.
The banning of Saudi athletes has never been seriously proposed either, despite the terror inflicted on Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s record of human rights abuses, and the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Israel has also easily avoided such bans. In response to a 2021 attempt by Malaysia to restrict Israeli athletes from participating in the world squash championships, International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued a letter that stated, “Countries that bar athletes from other countries will not be allowed to host international sports championships.” The obvious question arises: What do the 35 ministers who call for a Russian ban due to civilian casualties in Ukraine think about Palestinian victims of Israeli wars, occupation and ethnic cleansing?
One should agree with Zelensky when he states, “Terror and Olympism are two opposites, they cannot be combined.” On the other hand, it is evident that some nations that perpetuate state terror get a pass. Who receives this pass, of course, has much to do with U.S. foreign policy (which provoked the Russian invasion last year).
The sad truth is that Russian athletes must suffer for the sins of their government in a way that others do not. If the Olympic Committee stands with Ukraine but ignores others’ suffering, the lesson will not be lost on the victims of U.S., Saudi and Israeli aggression: You are unworthy victims. (On the other hand, no penalty for Russia could also indicate that its crimes, like those of the Americans, Saudis and Israelis, should be normalized.)
Welcoming Russian athletes would be in line with one of the Olympics’ core principles: “Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”
To its credit, the IOC has thus far stood by Russian athletes’ right to participate. Committee president, Thomas Bach, has responded to Zelensky by stating, “It is not up to governments to decide who can take part in which sports competitions, because this would be the end of international sports competitions and world championships and the Olympic Games as we know it.” The Committee maintains Russian participation may need to take place under a neutral flag, however. If that were the case, it would be fair and logical to ban U.S., Saudi and Israeli flags also. Such an action would signal that all war crimes deserve condemnation.
At the least, the people of Ukraine, Russia, Palestine and other worn-torn nations deserve this consistency from the Olympic Committee.
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