They fought on the same side and together won Olympic gold, young men from Russia and a newly independent Ukraine, joined for one last medal-winning hurrah on a short-lived post-Soviet Unified Team at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
Now, former fencers Vadym Guttsait and Stanislav Pozdnyakov are on opposite sides of the war that Russia is waging on Ukraine. Both have risen to become senior sports administrators, respectively heading the Ukrainian and Russian Olympic committees. The nearly year-old invasion has utterly shredded what was left of their friendship and they’re now fighting each other in a divisive and growing split within the Olympic movement over whether Russia and ally Belarus should be barred from next year’s Paris Games.
Guttsait, who is also Ukraine’s sports minister as well as its Olympic committee president, now has only contempt for his former teammate. Guttsait calls Pozdnyakov “my enemy” and says their friendship began to collapse when Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Moscow’s full-scale invasion, which enters its second year next week, was the last straw. Guttsait blames the Russian Olympic Committee president for making supportive comments of the assault.
“I don’t want to talk to him. I don’t want to know him at all. He is my enemy, who supports this war, who considers it an honor for athletes to take part in the war against Ukrainians, to kill Ukrainians,” Guttsait said. “Therefore, for today and forever, this person does not exist for me.”
The issue of whether athletes from Russia and Belarus should be allowed to compete is shaping up as the biggest potential spoiler of next year’s Paris Olympics. Guttsait is threatening a Ukrainian boycott if Russians and Belarusians are there and he is mobilizing support from other countries, backed by the wartime star power of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Russia and Belarus, on the other hand, are clinging to a lifeline thrown to them by the International Olympic Committee, which says some of their athletes may be able to return to international competition despite the war. The IOC suggests that their athletes who have not actively supported the war could try to qualify and compete as “neutral athletes,” stripped of national team uniforms, flags and anthems. Pozdnyakov has said Russia is preparing as if its athletes are going to Paris.
In an interview late Tuesday with The Associated Press, Guttsait laid out the process that could lead to a Ukrainian boycott of Paris if that happens. The minister said his own personal opinion is that “we need to boycott” if Russians and Belarusians attend. But he added that the decision isn’t his alone to make and said the Ukrainian Olympic Committee will convene an extraordinary meeting and “we will decide together whether we will participate or not.”
“This is a very important question, it is a very serious question and difficult for every athlete, for every coach who prepares all his life to go to the Olympic Games,” he said. “But while our people are dying, women and children are being killed, our cities are being destroyed, we stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people. In my opinion, this is more important than going to the competition. But we need to make this political decision together with our Olympic family.”
Before any decision for a full boycott, Ukrainian athletes could also show opposition by withdrawing from Olympic qualifying competitions that allow Russian and Belarusian entrants. Guttsait cited the example of the European wrestling championships in Croatia in April. If Russian and Belarusian athletes compete, Ukrainian wrestlers will either not attend “or they will come and not take part,” Guttsait said.
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach is facing a widespread backlash from Ukraine and its allies for opening a door for some athletes from Russia and Belarus to return to international competition. Bach argues that the Olympic movement has a “unifying mission of bringing people together” and a proven track record of opening lines of communication between nations divided by conflict. He cites the example of North and South Korea, which fielded a joint women’s hockey team at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Guttsait noted, however, that there are also Olympic precedents for keeping nations out. Germany and Japan were not invited to the 1948 London Olympics after they were the aggressors in World War II and South Africa was excluded from 1964-1988 because of its racist Apartheid laws.
The minister said support among Russian athletes for the invasion makes their presence at the Paris Olympics unthinkable while the war rages. He also noted that Russian athletes are often enrolled in the country’s armed forces.
Ukrainian athletes, on the other hand, are facing the miseries of war as they try, as best they can, to ready themselves for Paris.
“I really want all people to understand how we prepare, how our athletes live, that our athletes train while cruise missiles are flying, bombs are flying,” Guttsait said. “The Olympic Games are great, they unite the whole world, but not those athletes who support this war and this aggression.”