A ‘special quota system’ is currently being devised which will pave the way for athletes from Russia and Belarus to qualify for next year’s Paris Olympics – via Asia.
Speaking to The Indian Express, acting president of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), Randhir Singh, said his organisation is in the process of designing a qualification pathway so that athletes from these two nations can vie for Olympic berths by competing in Asian tournaments without eating into the existing quotas meant for the continent’s athletes. The modalities, he added, are being worked on in collaboration with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and international sports federations.
Earlier this week, the OCA invited Russian and Belarusian athletes – who have been exiled from many international sports following the invasion of Ukraine – to compete at the Asian Games, which will be held in Hangzhou, China, from September 23 to October 8. They will also be allowed to take part in other continental tournaments.
For the Asian Games, Singh said separate medals will likely be awarded to Asian athletes in case they lose to the Russians in medal rounds. Additionally, the athletes from these two countries might not be allowed to compete in all sports at the multi-discipline event.
“They won’t interfere in our medal system or Asian quota for the Olympic Games,” Singh said. “The IOC will work out (Olympic) quota (policy) with us at the OCA and the international federations. And there will be separate medals.”
He added that the IOC will decide whether to allow them to compete under the Russian flag and if the country’s anthem will be allowed to play at the arenas. However, as per the world body’s diktat, the athletes will have to undergo mandatory dope tests before they are allowed to compete, Singh said.
The IOC, in a statement following its Executive Board meeting earlier this month, had paved the way for Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in the Paris Olympics but set strict criteria. Among the conditions laid down, it was decided that these athletes would participate as ‘neutrals’ and not represent their respective countries. The IOC further added that only those athletes who have not participated in or supported the war will be considered.
Following the decision, the OCA invited Russia and Belarus to participate in Asian events, including its flagship Asian Games. The two countries have until now competed as a part of Europe. With several Olympic qualifying tournaments set to be held in Europe, the inclusion of Russians and Belarusians in those events was looking increasingly doubtful due to the tense relationships following the Ukraine war.
“Time is running out for athletes to win Olympic quotas. With the boycott going on, we invited Russian and Belarusian athletes to Asia to compete in our championship and Games,” Singh said.
The Asian Games were originally scheduled to take place last year. However, they were postponed to 2023 due to China’s zero-Covid policy. The continental mega-event doubles up as an Olympic qualifier for various sports including archery, boxing, hockey, modern pentathlon and tennis. In many other sports, like wrestling and shooting, for example, the Asian Championships act as an Olympic qualifying event.
The inclusion of Russia, an Olympic powerhouse, could considerably raise the level of competition – from wrestling to shooting, athletics to gymnastics.
Giving an indication of how the Russians would be incorporated, Singh said the focus will be to include them in events where winners are decided on an overall points system. It is likely that Russia will not be considered for combat sports.
“We are devising a philosophy where they’ll… be able to compete in (events) where we can take them on numbers. Not in combat sports like wrestling, for instance. If our wrestler from Asia gets knocked out in the first round, then we lose out on qualification. But if there is a points system like in athletics, shooting… these kinds of sports are where they’ll be able to compete. This is all being worked out,” Singh, the first Indian shooter to win an Asian Games gold, said.
The IOC’s decision to allow ‘neutral’ teams from Russia and Belarus has been objected to by Ukraine, with the country’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy calling upon the world governing body to exclude athletes from these two countries entirely.
Singh said the OCA’s decision to invite Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete in Asia was based on the ‘principle that sport is a unifying power.’ “The idea is to give an opportunity to the athletes to participate and not miss out on the Paris Olympic Games. Sport is not a place for politics. Sports are for sports people; for love, friendship and brotherhood. Sports people are one family. On that basis, we are supporting them.”