(Reuters) – The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) continued to pave the way for Russian and Belarusian athletes to qualify for next year’s Paris Summer Games through events in the region when its Athletes Forum endorsed the principles behind it.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is coming under immense pressure from 35 governments, including the United States, Britain and France, to exclude athletes from Russia and its ally Belarus because of the invasion of Ukraine.
The IOC said in January it was open to including the athletes from the countries in the Olympics as neutrals and suggested Asia as a possible qualifying pathway to circumvent bans from European regional competitions.
The OCA has already offered to let Russian and Belarusian athletes compete at the Asian Games in China later this year and, according to the regional body, a gathering of 88 athletes at a closed meeting in Bangkok on Saturday agreed.
An OCA statement said the forum had agreed that athletes “should not be punished for the actions of their governments” and “should have access to international competitions (including the Asian Games) without any form of discrimination”.
The forum also endorsed conditions under which Russians and Belarusians could compete, including a ban on government officials from the two countries, a ban on flags or national symbols being displayed, and full compliance with doping rules.
The forum insisted on “fairness to Asian athletes in any qualification pathway”, an indication that any spots in Paris granted to Russians and Belarusians should not be at the expense of athletes from the most populous continent.
The arguments reflected the position of the IOC, which is desperate to prevent the ongoing conflict from tearing apart the Olympic movement, on the issue.
Ukraine has threatened to boycott the Paris Olympics should Russians and Belarusians be allowed to compete. No final decision has been taken yet.
The 35 “like-minded” governments expressed concerns about the athletes competing as neutrals in a statement last month given they were directly funded by their governments and often had close links to the military.
The Asian Games take place in Hangzhou from Sept. 23 to Oct. 8, having been delayed from last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)