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Ukrainian athletes ‘seeking safety in bomb shelters’ call for Russia and Belarus to be banned from international sport

<i>Kyodo News/Getty Images</i><br/>National flags fly at the Beijing Winter Paralympic athletes' village in the Chinese capital on Feb. 26
Kyodo News via Getty Images
Kyodo News/Getty Images
National flags fly at the Beijing Winter Paralympic athletes' village in the Chinese capital on Feb. 26

By George Ramsay, CNN

An open letter from Ukrainian athletes is calling for Russia and Belarus to be banned from international sport, including the upcoming Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing.

The letter, addressed to International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach and International Paralympic Committee (IPC) |President Andrew Parsons, says Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a “clear breach of the Olympic and Paralympic Charters” and “must be met with strong sanctions.”

On Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his country’s deterrence forces to be placed on high alert as fighting continued across Ukraine. Belarus is an ally of Russia and is being used as a launch point for Russian troops into Ukraine.

Delegations from Russia and Ukraine are meeting on Monday, although Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he doesn’t expect much progress to be made during the talks.

“Athletes, our countrymen, our families, and our friends are in grave danger as a result (of) this aggressive assault by Russia and Belarus on our country,” said the letter, signed by leaders from a number of sporting federations in Ukraine and released by start-up group Global Athlete.

“We plead with you [the IOC and IPC] to join the international community to sanction Russia and Belarus.”

It added: “Make no mistake, Athletes in Ukraine are united in this call. It has been a challenge to speak with all athletes from Ukraine as they are seeking safety in bomb shelters.”

On Monday after the publication of the letter — whose signatories include athletes from biathlon, luge, bobsled and skeleton federations in Ukraine — the IOC said it “recommended” that Russian and Belorussian athletes are banned from competing in international sporting events.

However, where this is not possible due to “short notice for organisational or legal reasons,” athletes or teams should compete instead as neutrals. The IOC told CNN this would be the case for Russian and Belorussian athletes at the Winter Paralympics in Beijing, which run from March 4-13.

The IPC said its board is scheduled to meet on Wednesday to discuss the matter.

The Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) said it strongly disagreed with the IOC’s decision to ban Russian athletes from competing in all international sporting events.

A statement issued on the ROC’s website on Monday said the decision “contradicts both the regulatory documents of the IOC and the [Olympic] Charter […] and the spirit of the Olympic movement, which is designed to unite, not divide, especially when it comes to athletes and equality of participants in the Olympic movement.”

“For its part, the Russian Olympic Committee intends to consistently defend the rights and interests of Russian athletes and provide all necessary assistance to our national federations to challenge the discriminatory decisions of the respective international federations,” the statement added.

The ROC said it would contact individual international sporting federations for an official response to the IOC’s announcement as “it is international sports federations that have the authority to admit athletes to international competitions in the corresponding sport.”

According to the IPC, the majority of the Russian Paralympic Committee’s 71 athletes set to compete in Beijing will have arrived in the Chinese capital by Tuesday.

The Ukrainian team could total 20 athletes, although there is currently only a handful of support staff from Ukraine’s National Paralympic Committee (NPC) in Beijing.

“We are working hard with the NPC to ensure their participation at the Games. The safety of the delegation is our top priority, therefore we are not sharing information on their whereabouts right now,” the IPC told CNN.

Last week, the IOC urged all international sporting federations to relocate or cancel events currently planned to be held in Russia or Belarus, while also strongly condemning the countries’ breach of the Olympic Truce.

The Olympic Truce dates back almost 3,000 years to the early days of the ancient games when the leaders of three Greek city-states agreed to limit their battles. In modern times, the Truce has been invoked as a universal goal by the UN regularly since 1993.

On January 28, UN Secretary-General António Guterres asked nations around the world to lay down their weapons and observe an Olympic Truce from seven days before the Beijing Games until seven days after the end of the Paralympic Games.

“Through the power of sports and the Olympic ideal, let us build a culture of peace,” he said.

The IOC also announced on Monday that it had withdrawn the Olympic Order, the highest award of the Olympic movement, from Putin.

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CNN’s Aleks Klosok contributed to reporting.

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