The IOC hopes for Russian and Belarusian athletes to return to international sport at Paris 2024 under a neutral banner ©Getty Images

The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) has announced that it "remains on standby" to welcome Russian and Belarusian athletes to its events, but Russian Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin and Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) President Stanislav Pozdnyakov have criticised the conditions of neutrality required for a potential return.

Russia and Belarus' exclusion from international sport has been subject to fresh debate after Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron to help ensure they are not represented at next year's Olympic Games in Paris.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has since insisted "Governments must not decide which athletes can participate in which competition and which athletes cannot", and edged closer to facilitating a Russian and Belarusian return by vowing that a pathway for athletes' inclusion should be "further explored" after receiving support in recent consultation calls.

This would be under "strict conditions" of neutrality, the IOC warned, and only for athletes who "fully respect the Olympic Charter", while sanctions including a ban on Russia and Belarus' national symbols would remain in place.

The OCA's offer to facilitate both countries' athletes at its Paris 2024 qualifiers was made at the Olympic Summit last month, and the continental body has reposted its invitation.

"The OCA joins the Olympic Movement in its support of the IOC Executive Board’s statement on solidarity with Ukraine, sanctions against Russia and Belarus, and the status of athletes from these countries," it said.

"The OCA believes in the unifying power of sport and that all athletes, regardless of their nationality or the passport they hold, should be able to compete in sports competitions.

"The OCA has offered to give eligible Russian and Belarusian athletes the opportunity to take part in competitions in Asia, including the Asian Games.

 "The OCA remains on standby as the IOC continues to explore with International Federations the pathway for the return of Russian and Belarusian athletes’ participation in competition under strict conditions."

The OCA says it
The OCA says it "remains on standby" for Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate at the delayed Hangzhou 2022 Asian Games ©Getty Images

The IOC reiterated yesterday that the OCA's offer was "welcomed and appreciated", but noted each International Federation is the "sole authority" of its international competitions.

Its outlining of requirements for Russian and Belarusian athletes that would be in place in the event of a return has been criticised in Russia.

Matytsin claimed that banning Russian and Belarusian symbols would be contrary to the Olympic Charter.

"The IOC, in its decision, speaks about the possibility of admitting athletes, demonstrating the political flexibility of its position," he said.

"At the same time, we consider it unacceptable to determine special conditions for athletes to participate that are inconsistent with the Olympic Charter, the principles of equality and fairness."

Pozdnyakov, one of only three National Olympic Committee Presidents in attendance at the Olympic Summit, has also rejected those requirements.

"I perceive the information from the IOC as an attempt to take a step towards the athletes," he said.

"But at the same time, unfortunately, it is also two steps in the opposite direction.

"In fact, today's statement is an attempt to correct a mistake that has already resulted in groundless restrictions for Russian and Belarusian sports for almost a year and has caused great damage to all international sports.

"The voice of common sense was heard.

"However, at the same time, we still categorically disagree with any restrictions, additional requirements and sanctions that relate to the nationality of our athletes and are again offered to us as a condition for returning to the international arena."

ROC President has criticised the conditions set by the IOC for Russian athletes to compete as neutrals at Paris 2024 ©ROC
ROC President has criticised the conditions set by the IOC for Russian athletes to compete as neutrals at Paris 2024 ©ROC

Pozdnyakov added that the ROC intends to conduct a legal review of the IOC's latest statement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov has also noted the neutrality requirements, telling Russia's RBC Sport that he would need to further consider the statement while claiming "even in the wording of the initiative there is too much politics, which should be alien to the ideas of the Olympic family".

Putin was one of three Russian officials who had the Olympic Order withdrawn by the IOC in response to the widely-condemned invasion of Ukraine.

The chair of the State Duma Committee on Physical Culture and Sports Dmitry Svishchev welcomed the move towards the admission of athletes, but also criticised "discrimination based on nationality".

Plans for Russia and Belarus' return have been criticised heavily in Ukraine since they were first revealed after the Olympic Summit.

Zelenskyy has been a high-profile oppoent, while Sports Minister and National Olympic Committee of Ukraine President Vadym Guttsait has highlighted that Russian athletes are serving in the country's armed forces.

Paris is due to host the Olympic Games next year from July 26 to August 11, with qualifying competition having already begun in some sports.