David Owen

The near-500-word press release I received from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) this week relating to Thomas Bach’s visit to Kyiv was missing one key word.

As I am sure many of you will instantly have guessed, that word was "Russia" or "Russian".

There was reference to "the war in Ukraine" and to a badly damaged basketball hall which was "hit during a missile attack on the city".

But of the dreaded R-word, there was not a trace.

An account of the same visit published on the official website of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was, as you might expect, far less bashful.

Sentence two referred to "the Russian invasion".

There were also chilling details of the impact of this attack on Ukrainian sport: "hundreds" of sports facilities had been destroyed, it was claimed; as many as 89 athletes and coaches had so far "died as a result of hostilities", with a further 13 "captured" and "in Russian captivity".

I do get that organisations with a global vocation are sometimes obliged to apply a degree of restraint in their comments that the rest of us are free to eschew.

But honestly, who does the IOC think benefits from failing to talk in clear terms about a Russian invasion?

IOC President Thomas Bach recently visited Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach recently visited Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv ©Getty Images

It is not as if Vladimir Putin’s fief has not done enough damage to the Olympic Movement during Bach’s near nine years as IOC President.

And I say that as one of the few Western commentators who originally argued consistently against blanket bans and in favour of individual justice for Russian athletes and sports officials.

It was bitterly ironic that Bach’s visit came on the day - July 3 - when Russia claimed to have seized the entirety of Ukraine’s Luhansk region after weeks of brutal fighting.

Luhansk is the given birthplace of Sergii Bubka, the great pole-vaulter whom I think I have always referred to hitherto as Sergey, the President of the Ukraine National Olympic Committee (NOC).

Bubka, 58, who is also an IOC member, accompanied Bach while he was in the Ukrainian capital.

The IOC President was also joined for part of his visit by Ukraine’s other IOC member, the 72 year-old Valeriy Borzov, champion sprinter of the 1970s.

These two former star athletes - both of whom I know and respect - embody their country’s late 20th-century history.

Both are Olympic gold medallists, but both won these gold medals sporting the red vest of the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

Bubka continued competing for several years for Ukraine after independence, which came in 1991.

Borzov - whom I can remember gracing the cover, with the hammer and sickle, of the UK’s TV listings magazine Radio Times - once gave me an extraordinary interview, when he recalled how, 20 minutes before the 1976 men’s Olympic 100m final, he had been told by an official that a sniper was on the stadium and "they had information that he had a plan to shoot me".

His reaction comes across as even more dramatic in the broken English in which the interview was conducted owing to my inability to speak Russian.

Ukraine's IOC member Valeriy Borzov said
Ukraine's IOC member Valeriy Borzov said "for the mentality to change we need two generations minimum", when asked about politics in his country ©Getty Images

"I had a dilemma: run and be killed; don’t run and be afraid, be weak," he said.

The bronze medal he secured there in Montreal seems scarcely believable in the circumstances.

Borzov told me he still did not know if the threat was genuine.

"The President of the US [i.e. Kennedy] was killed," he replied, conveying the idea that a sniper in the vicinity of the race certainly was not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Montreal was where the athlete met his future wife, the multi-Olympic medal-winning gymnast Ludmilla Tourischeva, who was born in Grozny.

Though hampered by not having a language in which we were mutually fluent, I did ask Borzov about his country’s turbulent history/politics.

His answer seems all the more thought-provoking today.

"In one day," he said, "we changed direction from Communism to I don’t know where.

"Nobody informed us which way we are going.

"We can change everything, but for the mentality to change we need two generations minimum."

With these two, the IOC is well-represented in this territory whose fate now looks so crucial to the future of liberal democracy.

But the country is bigger than metropolitan France and the IOC is a body with over 100 members.

I think it would be symbolically a good time to induct a member of the younger generation, with no real memory of Cold War Europe, into the IOC as a third Ukrainian member.

It would not change very much in the grand scheme of things, but it would send an unmistakable message, after the first of the two generations referred to by Borzov, as to where sport’s sympathies truly lie.