The World Rowing Congress was held in Belgrade after the World Championships, where Russian and Belarusian athletes were permitted to compete as neutrals under certain conditions ©World Rowing

World Rowing President Jean-Christophe Rolland has claimed at the Congress in Serbia's capital Belgrade "boycotts have never solved anything", while the governing body's stance was praised by International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach.

The Congress was held at the Hotel Hyatt after the World Rowing Championships in Belgrade, where Russian and Belarusian athletes were permitted to compete as neutrals in singles and pairs, provided they had not supported the war in Ukraine and are not affiliated to the military.

The decision to lift an outright ban in June followed updated recommendations from the IOC, of which Rolland has been a member since 2017.

In his report at the Congress, the French official Rolland thanked members for supporting Ukraine since the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022, but condemned "politicisation" of sport and dismissed the value of any boycotts.

"The world of sport must acknowledge the dilemma, despite all the emotion generated by the war, by having a long-term vision of the place of sport in the world," he wrote.

"Sport should remain a tool for promoting peace, dialogue and reconciliation and should not let politicians and Governments decide whether athletes will participate in international competitions.

"This is the reason why politicisation is unacceptable.

"While the decision for the Paris 2024 Games has not yet been taken, the Governments, mainly from Europe for reasons of sensitivity and proximity, criticise even the exercise of reflecting on the definition of relevant conditions of eligibility for participation of athletes who have no responsibility in a war.

"Even before the completion of this exercise, threats of boycott are heard.

"Boycotts have never solved anything other than depriving athletes of their dreams.

"Sport cannot stop war.

"Politicians should take their responsibility, and instead of exploit athletes, sport could remain the last link of dialogue between individuals."

Ukraine's participation at the Paris 2024 Olympics is uncertain if Russian and Belarusian athletes are allowed to compete, but the IOC has stressed it is undecided on this issue.

Its Government in July lifted a requirement for National Federations to boycott qualifiers for the Games featuring competitors from both countries.

World Rowing President and IOC member Jean-Christophe Rolland admitted maintaining a ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes
World Rowing President and IOC member Jean-Christophe Rolland admitted maintaining a ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes "might have been less controversial" ©Getty Images

Critics have argued there should be no place in sport for Russia and Belarus while the war in Ukraine continues and questioned how strictly the IOC's neutrality requirements have been implemented in sports such as judo, taekwondo and wrestling, but the IOC has claimed it has found a "middle ground" given Russian disappointment at the conditions for participation.

The World Rowing President explained how the governing body reached its decision on Russia and Belarus further to delegates at the Congress.

"There is no ideal solution," he said.

"A no would have been easy, a no might have been less controversial, a no would have been much easier for us to implement.

"But our duty is not to make our life easy, our duty is to fight for the values that we believe in, and I appreciate how difficult it is when it comes to a war to put emotions aside, especially in that very specific context and in such a terrible context.

"But we have the consideration the right arguments not do it, and there are, we have considered the right arguments why to do it, and there are.

"Was the balance clear?

"Certainly not.

"Was the decision unanimous?

"I can tell you, no.

"My intention is not to open the debate, the subject is sensitive, I have related the political pressure, but I also recognise and do respect that your own country and your own federation may have a different position."

Rolland added that "no situations were reported" involving Russian and Belarusian athletes competing as neutrals at its Under-23 World Championships in Plovdiv, Under-19 World Championships in Paris and adult World Championships in Belgrade.

IOC President Thomas Bach delivered a video message to the Congress in which he praised Rolland's leadership of World Rowing, and commended its stance on Russia and Belarus.

"Sport must always build bridges," the German official said.

"This is the contribution to peace that sport can offer, opening a pathway to foster understanding between people and nations, and not to deepen divisions.

"This is why I would like to thank you for ensuring the integrity of your competitions and vigorously protecting the autonomy of sport from politicisation.

"Thank you for making it possible for all rowers to compete in your competitions, regardless of their passport.

"Only in this way can we ensure that sport contributes to peace, to build bridges and not to deepen confrontation.

"As your rowers show us, we can only grow faster, aim higher, become stronger if we row together in solidarity."

IOC President Thomas Bach praised World Rowing for
IOC President Thomas Bach praised World Rowing for "vigorously protecting the autonomy of sport from politicisation" ©Getty Images

The Congress was attended by 89 member federations, and also featured an update on an application for coastal rowing to feature at the Olympic Games for the first time at Los Angeles 2028.

A decision on the final sporting programme for Los Angeles 2028 was last week delayed by the IOC with negotiations continuing with the Organising Committee.

Rolland stressed it would be a "genuine historical step" for the sport if coastal rowing was included, and insisted "we are convinced with the huge potential of the discipline".

British Olympic silver medallist Guin Batten was later elected as chair of the Coastal Rowing Commission.

He warned classic rowing needs to "address our challenges" to stay relevant and commercially viable, following a report from Events Commission chair Eva Szanto outlining the launch of a strategic event and calendar review.

Presentations were provided from organisers of next year's World Championships in the Canadian city of St Catharines and the 2025 edition in the Chinese city of Shanghai.

Swiss former world champion Mathias Binder was elected as chair of the Equipment and Technology Commission, Serbia's Filip Ljubicic as Indoor Rowing Commission chair, Germany's Jürgen Steinacker to head up the Sports Medicine Commission, The Netherlands' Jacomine Ravensbergen as Gender Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Cross-Commission chair, and Belgium's Axel Müller to replace Lithuania's Algirdas Raslanas as chair of the Youth Rowing Commission.

Oman and Papua New Guinea were additionally recognised to take World Rowing's membership to 159 nations, while the Asian Rowing Federation were recognised as a Continental Federation.