Will Russia, Belarus compete in Olympics? It depends. Here's where key sports stand

Editor's note: The IOC dismissed claims Oct. 20 by Russian President Vladimir Putin of “ethnic discrimination” against athletes who are excluded from international sport.

More than a year after the International Olympic Committee banned Russia because of its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and with less than a year until the Paris Olympics and Paralympics begin, the status of athletes from Russia and Belarus remains murky.

The IOC said in March individual sports federations – think gymnastics, track and field or wrestling – could begin allowing “individual neutral athletes” from Russia and Belarus to return to competition. No teams would be allowed, nor would athletes who "actively support the war" or "are contracted to the Russian or Belarussian military or national security."

Some sports, like fencing, have let Russians and Belarusians back in or have said they will soon. Others, like track and field, are refusing to lift their bans or aren’t taking steps to do so.

What all this means for Paris remains uncertain. While the individual sports handle the qualification process for the Olympic Games, the IOC determines who can participate and it continues to dodge the question on Russian and Belarusian athletes. All the IOC will say is that it will make a decision at "the appropriate time … without being bound by the results of previous Olympic qualification competitions."

This is not a small matter. Despite being banned from track and field, Russia – sorry, athletes from the Russian Olympic Committee – won 71 medals in Tokyo, third behind the United States and China, and 20 of those were gold. Russia won the fourth-most medals, 56, at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.

Russia has traditionally dominated in gymnastics, fencing, shooting and wrestling at the Summer Games.

With no word on when the IOC might make a decision, here's a look at where Russian and Belarusian athletes stand in several key sports:


It's complicated.

Boxing currently does not have an international federation recognized by the IOC. The old federation, the International Boxing Association, lost its recognition earlier this year due to management concerns and its financial entanglements with Russia, among other factors. And the upstart federation seeking to replace it, World Boxing, has not yet been formally recognized by the IOC.

The situation with Olympic qualification is also murky. In the absence of a recognized federation, the boxing qualification process is being overseen by the IOC, but it is unclear whether Russians will have a chance to qualify. They were banned from competing at the European qualifying event in June by the event's host country, Poland. And they have been similarly barred from this month's Asian Games due to unspecified logistical and technical reasons, meaning their only shot at Olympic qualification – as long as they're not banned – will be at a pair of events early next year in Italy and Thailand.


Allowed to compete – and already a source of controversy.

The International Fencing Federation (FIE) was one of the first federations to welcome back Russian athletes, which came as no surprise given the country's success and influence in the sport. Russians have won 15 medals, including seven golds, in fencing at the past two Olympics. And prior to last year's Ukraine invasion, the federation's president (and one of its important financial backers) was Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov.

After a yearlong ban, the FIE voted in March to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to return to competition as neutral athletes – but it didn't take long for this to spark controversy. At the world championships in late July, Ukrainian fencer Olga Kharlan was disqualified for refusing to shake hands with the Russian fencer she defeated. Amid backlash, the IOC stepped in and said Kharlan would be awarded a spot at the Paris Games.


Banned – for now.

The International Gymnastics Federation said in July it would begin allowing individual athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete at its events, “under strict conditions,” on Jan. 1, 2024. The FIG said it will release ad-hoc rules outlining conditions athletes will have to meet to ensure their neutrality, but it has yet to do so.

It did make clear, however, that any athletes wishing to compete cannot have any “involvement or association” with the Russian or Belarussian governments, Olympic committees or gymnastics federations. Valentina Rodionenko, head coach of the Russian artistic program, and Irina Viner, head coach of the Russian rhythmic team, have both been effusive in their support for the war and criticized the sanctions against Russian athletes.

The FIG’s definition of neutrality will be key. Many of Russia’s top gymnasts are part of teams funded by the military, and most have shown support for the war by attending public rallies or posing with the Z symbol. The men’s team that won gold in Tokyo even bought a drone for Russian troops.


Returning soon.

The International Shooting Sport Federation said in April it would allow neutral athletes from Russia and Belarus to return to individual competitions so long as they “were not contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military or national security agencies.” That would seem to rule out most Russian athletes, given the high number who are in the army.

Though the ISSF didn’t say when the athletes could start competing again, its executive committee decided in September to forward the proposed eligibility rules to the full ISSF Council to consider at its next meeting.


Allowed to compete, with vetting.

World Aquatics announced earlier this month Russian and Belarusian athletes will be welcomed back as neutral athletes in individual events as long as they meet certain criteria, which will be evaluated by an integrity unit within the federation. Athletes must not be affiliated with the Russian military nor have shown support for the war in Ukraine. And if welcomed back, they must compete in plain white swimsuits and are barred from speaking with the media, among a host of other conditions.

Russian athletes have won only nine medals at the past two Olympic Games. And in Paris, only one Russian athlete will be permitted to compete in each individual event. Like other federations, World Aquatics continues to ban Russia and Belarus from team events and competitions – which, in this case, includes relays, artistic swimming, synchronized diving and water polo.


Allowed to compete, with questionable vetting.

World Taekwondo was one of the first groups to readmit Russian and Belarussian athletes, announcing it would do so just five days after the IOC said it wanted sports federations to find a pathway for athletes from the two countries to return.

World Taekwondo said athletes have to go through a three-step process before they can be declared eligible: verification by the member national association and continental union; individual-led confirmation; and assessment and approval by World Taekwondo’s Review Committee. The athletes also have to sign a pledge to respect the conditions of participation.

Twenty-three athletes from Russia and Belarus were approved for the world championships, which were May 29 to June 4. Two Russians, both gold medalists at the Tokyo Olympics, were rejected because of public support for the war against Ukraine.

But a few days after the competition concluded, World Taekwondo acknowledged it was investigating a report that seven athletes from Russia and Belarus, including four medalists, participated at the world championships despite apparently liking social media posts supporting the war.


Banned – with no clear end in sight.

World Athletics, the international federation for track and field, has taken one of the toughest stances on Russia and Belarus since the start of the war in Ukraine. In March 2022, it moved to totally exclude Russian and Belarusian athletes, support personnel, federations and officials from its events – and its council reaffirmed that policy at a meeting earlier this year.

Moreover, World Athletics president Seb Coe said last month he believes it is "unlikely" the federation will alter its stance prior to the Paris Games. "We will of course monitor that situation," he told reporters. "… But I have to say that looks unlikely at the moment given where we are with the events in Ukraine."

Russian athletes won just two medals at the 2021 Olympics: Gold in the women's high jump, and silver in women's pole vault. The former would become a hotspot for controversy in the off chance World Athletics reversed its decision; The reigning world champ in the event is Yaroslava Mahuchikh of Ukraine.


Competing again, with vetting.

United World Wrestling wasted little time readmitting athletes from Russia and Belarus. Six days after the IOC urged federations to find a pathway for “neutral” athletes, UWW said it would immediately allow wrestlers in the Under-15 and Under-17 levels to compete. Requests for neutral status from senior-level wrestlers would be decided by an independent panel relying on background and social media checks, as well as information from an “independent and private intelligence service provider.”

Of the 235 athletes and support staff who applied for neutral status ahead of the world championships earlier this month, UWW approved all but 26 of them. Three Tokyo Olympic champions who were on stage at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin were among those allowed to compete at worlds, with the UWW saying it determined their participation wasn’t voluntary. One of those three, Zaurbek Sidakov, won a world title.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will Russia, Belarus athletes compete in Paris Olympics? Status update