A United Nations expert advising the International Olympic Committee has provoked outrage by claiming that Russian soldiers who have fought in Ukraine should be allowed to compete at the Paris 2024 Games – as long as they have not committed war crimes.
Alexandra Xanthaki, the UN special rapporteur for cultural rights, angered Ukrainian athletes on an IOC‑hosted call by saying that only Russians implicated directly in crimes against humanity or propaganda for war should be barred from international sport.
“I don’t think that it makes sense to exclude all Russian soldiers and all Russian military,” Xanthaki told athlete representatives from most of the 206 national Olympic committees. “It is discriminatory because there were a lot of other athletes [from other countries] … in active military operations and they were never excluded.
“However, every athlete has to be excluded if they are found guilty of atrocity, of serious human rights violations in times of war, including crimes against humanity and genocide. And also they can be excluded if they are found guilty of propaganda for war but on an individual basis.”
It is unclear how far the IOC will follow her advice at an executive board meeting on Tuesday, which is expected to offer updated guidelines to sports about how Russian and Belarusian athletes can qualify for Paris.
The Ukrainian skeleton racer Vladyslav Heraskevych, who was on the call, said: “Her comments sounded pretty insane. And it was clear from the questions she received that many others were shocked that she was advocating a way for Russians to compete despite their illegal war.”
Heraskevych, who held up a sign saying “No war in Ukraine” at the Winter Olympics last year before the invasion of his country, said Xanthaki’s knowledge of sport also appeared limited.
“At one point when asked about propaganda, she said that Russian people who worship the Olympics will be disappointed to see their athletes under a neutral flag, and they will start to question themselves,” he said. “But we all know that in the last three Olympics, that is what has happened.”
Ukrainian government and sports officials want the IOC to ban all Russians from the 2024 Games and claim most of the country’s recent Olympic medallists were affiliated with the military.
The IOC’s initial advice to sports bodies after the invasion was to exclude athletes from Russia and Belarus. In recent months it has sought a potential pathway to allow some back, citing Xanthaki’s view that excluding athletes based only on their passport would breach their human rights.
The Ukrainians “ferociously disagreed with my analysis”, she acknowledged in a Twitter exchange, adding that athletes taking part from countries in the global south agreed with her.
A strong position against the IOC was taken last week by World Athletics, which is refusing to admit Russians or Belarusians “for the foreseeable future”.
But the final decisions on Russian athletes competing at the Paris Games still rest with the IOC. In the Olympic Charter, article 44.3 states: “Nobody is entitled as of right to participate in the Olympic Games.”