Less than six months before the Russian invasion, Ukraine was readying a bid for a Winter Games as soon as 2030, hoping to transform the Carpathian Mountains into the Alps of Eastern Europe.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced his determination to host during International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach’s September 2021 visit to Kyiv to mark the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s national Olympic committee.

The little-noticed bid launch was “warmly welcomed” by Bach, who cited “the great sports tradition of Ukraine, and after having seen a very impressive presentation of the most recent sports and sports infrastructure in the country,” according to an IOC news release.

‘We want to make your Olympic dreams come true,’ IOC president tells Ukrainians during visit

By mid-February of 2022, less than a week before Russia’s strike on Kyiv and other major cities, Ukraine’s sports minister, Vadym Guttsait, insisted that his country was still in the running for the 2030 Winter Games despite a lack of facilities.

“Yes, we do not have enough infrastructure for winter sports and we are working on it, we see where to build, where to spend,” Guttsait told insidethegames.biz. “We are now looking at how to start and conduct the Winter Olympics in Ukraine in 2030.”

Salt Lake City, Sapporo, Vancouver — and Ukraine?

Had Russia not attacked, Ukraine could have joined other 2030 contenders, currently Salt Lake City; Sapporo, Japan; and Vancouver, Canada. More countries, including Sweden, may get in the race after the IOC delayed making a pick until likely next year,

An earlier bid by Kyiv, for the 2022 Winter Games that ultimately were held in Beijing, was dropped due to fighting in eastern Ukraine that began in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of the country’s Crimea region.

Ukraine’s only prior Olympic experience was as part of the then-Soviet Union, hosting soccer matches during the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow that were boycotted by the United States and some 60 other nations due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Today, as Russia’s war against Ukraine enters a second year, there’s talk from Ukraine about organizing a boycott of the 2024 Summer Games in Paris, if the IOC goes forward with a proposal to allow Russians and Belarusians to compete as neutral athletes.

The proposal, a reversal of the IOC’s call at the start of the war for barring Russia and neighboring Belarus from international competition, continues to draw widespread criticism and has become a focal point in the ongoing conflict.

That’s because for better or worse, the Olympics are a powerful presence worldwide, said Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah and the author of two books about the Olympics.

“Everybody recognizes that symbol. So when you want to protest, when you want to make your point, that’s something that’s easy to go after. It’s high profile,” Burbank said. “It’s just a much bigger target.”

Is new IOC proposal a ‘humiliation’ for Russia? Or a call for Ukraine supporters to boycott the Paris Olympics?

For Ukraine, the shift from wooing the IOC’s backing for a bid to challenging what appears to be “wobbling” when it comes to opposing Russian aggression, Burbank said, is another way to keep western nations focused on the conflict.

“I think if you’re a country that’s fighting for your life after being invaded by your huge next-door neighbor, you might look at this and say, “Gee, this doesn’t look very supportive at all.’ That’s their immediate concern,” he said. “They’re trying to line up people.”

Could Russian and Belarusian athletes compete in the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris?
A woman passes by the Olympic rings at the City Hall in Paris, Monday, July 25, 2022. | Lewis Joly, Associated Press

EU concerned about Russians competing in Paris Olympics

This week, the European Parliament condemned the IOC’s proposal as “an embarrassment to the international world of sport,” while officials from 34 countries including the United States signed a statement expressing “strong concerns” about its feasibility.

Released by the British government, the statement warns, “in Russia and Belarus sport and politics are closely intertwined” and also notes “(t)he strong links and affiliations between Russian athletes and the Russian military are also of clear concern.”

The IOC responded in an update to a posting about the controversy, stressing the proposal is still only “an exploration of a primary concept for conditions of participation. No decision has been taken.”

Also, the Switzerland-based organization said, the European Parliament is in “clear conflict with the autonomy of sports organizations” as well as a “clear contradiction with the unifying peace-building mission of the Olympic Games and the Olympic Charter.”

It’s Zelenskyy, who said last July Bach had assured him during a wartime visit to Kyiv that “the door remains open for Ukraine” to host a Winter Games, who’s been especially harsh in his condemnation of the possibility of Russian and Belarusian athletes competing in Paris.

The Ukrainian president said in a recent address to his country that it’s “obvious that any neutral flag of Russian athletes is stained with blood,” and later warned international sports and government officials “terror and Olympism” must not be combined.

Will next Olympics in the U.S. be affected by the controversy over Russian athlete status?

“Ukraine has launched a marathon of honesty, and I urge you to join. While Russia kills and terrorizes, representatives of the terrorist state have no place at sports and Olympic competitions,” Zelenskyy said, according to remarks released by his office.

In addition to a threatened boycott of the 2024 Olympics if Russian and Belarusian athletes are allowed to participate, Ukraine’s leader said he’s soliciting support for continuing the ban from the worldwide companies that pay up to $300 million to be Olympic sponsors.

Russia officials have also slammed what the IOC says is an effort still being explored to accommodate claims of discrimination raised by United Nations officials about barring Russian and Belarusian athletes based on their nationalities.

Even Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has weighed in, saying recently that as long as Russia continues the war, “it is not possible to march as if nothing had happened, to have a delegation come to Paris, while the bombs continue to rain down on Ukraine.

Skiers compete in the 2022 Biathlon Youth and Junior World Championships at Soldier Hollow Nordic Center in Midway on March 2, 2022.
Skiers compete in the 2022 Biathlon Youth and Junior World Championships at Soldier Hollow Nordic Center in Midway on March 2, 2022. A team of eight young Russian biathletes were banned from competing by the international federation as a show of solidarity with Ukraine. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

What will happen in the United States?

Burbank said despite President Joe Biden’s dramatic show of support for Ukraine through a surprise Presidents Day trip to Kyiv, it’s not clear what the United States would do if Ukraine does end up calling for a boycott of next summer’s Olympics.

“At the moment, that’s just a big question mark,” the professor said, adding the IOC remains aggrieved over the U.S.-led diplomatic boycott of last year’s Winter Games in Beijing over China’s record on human rights.

“You could easily imagine if the IOC were to strike some kind of a deal with the Russians, saying they could compete under these kinds of circumstances, that the U.S. might do something similar — or even more dramatic,” Burbank said.

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The last major Olympic boycott was in 1984, when the Soviet Union and its allies retaliated for the U.S. and other countries not sending teams to compete in the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow by staying away from the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

The effects of a boycott in 2024 could carry over to the next Summer Games four years later and once again in Los Angeles, as well as the chances of Salt Lake City, host of the 2002 Winter Games, getting another Olympics, Burbank said.

But the professor doesn’t rule out Ukraine someday hosting a Winter Games, saying what would then be new leadership of the “Euro-centric” IOC may see siting an Olympics there as a way to spur post-war reconstruction.

“Of course, it depends on what happens with this war,” Burbank said. But if Russia ends up pulling out, “you could imagine 10, 12 years down the road, there’s some effort to say, ‘Yes, we’d like to reward this country that went through so much.’”

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