Culture Secretary reinforces UK Government’s position on the participation of Russia and Belarus in international sport.

The Rt Hon Lucy Frazer KC MP

Good morning everyone, I want to start with an apology.

I would love to be there with you for what I know will be an informed and fruitful discussion, and one that will lead to a valuable report.

And I am hugely grateful to your President for the kind invitation to speak to you all today and to have a chance to reinforce the UK Government’s position on the participation of Russia and Belarus in international sport.

I’d also like to extend my thanks to all the members of the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media for your illuminating work in this area.

The UK Government has been committed to the people of Ukraine from day one of Putin’s barbaric invasion and that commitment is an unwavering one.

Any change to our position on the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes representing their states in international sport would be incompatible with that commitment and incompatible with our values as a country.

As this Council knows, the Olympic Truce – a principle that dates back to the 9th century BC to promote peace, friendship and understanding through sport – and is agreed at the United Nations – has been broken by Russia not once, but twice.

The first time was – rather unbelievably – at their own hosting of the Winter Games at Sochi in 2014, and the second was during the Beijing Games in 2022.

Russia has shown nothing but contempt for the values of the Olympics movement and its flouting of the rules has extended beyond the current conflict, as we saw with its involvement in doping programmes.

The facts are incontrovertible – Russia has devastated Ukraine, Russia has killed Ukrainian athletes and Russia has smashed Ukraine’s sports infrastructure to smithereens.

This regime does not deserve to see its athletes line up on the starting blocks of races or stand on podiums during medal ceremonies as representatives of their countries.

As part of our absolute commitment to Ukraine and Ukrainian sovereignty, we have used the convening power of sport to bring together a coalition of 35 countries opposed to Russian and Belarusian participation in international sport.

The collective statements we issued in March and July of last year, and February of this year, set out shared principles that all those countries agreed on.

Our common goal is for sporting bodies to minimise the ability of Russia and Belarus to use sport for political gain.

We recognise and want to maintain the autonomy of sport, and we support those national and international sports bodies who have shown moral clarity and exceptional leadership in this area.

Bodies like the World Athletics Council that reaffirmed their decision in March to exclude Russian and Belarusian athletes.

World Athletics President Seb Coe highlighted the substantial damage that Russia and Belarus have already done to ‘the integrity of our major international competitions.’

It is in our collective gift to restore that integrity.

And I want to be clear on one point which is really at the heart of this issue: this is not about punishing individual Russian or Belarusian athletes. These individuals have dedicated their lives to sport.

What we stand against is athletes competing to represent the state of Russia and Belarus. There is a fundamental difference.

The UK Government has from March 2022 been clear in our guidance to our own domestic sports bodies that individual Russian and Belarusian athletes can compete as ‘neutrals’ on UK soil, as long they really are neutral and are not representing their states in any way.

And we have been equally clear on what that neutrality looks like. These athletes must not, under any circumstances, express support for the war or the Russian and Belarusian regimes.

This extends to athlete funding – so athletes funded by their states to compete in events or who are in receipt of funding or sponsorship directly aligned to their states, such as from state controlled companies like Gazprom – cannot be considered to be neutral.

Athletes directly funded by their states to compete in sports competitions, who would not be present at those events without that support, are de facto representatives of those states. They are only there by virtue of being funded by, trained by, selected by, supported by the Russian state.

And, in that sense, from the UK perspective both ourselves and the International Olympic Committee, through its recommendations on ‘neutrality’ to International Federations of 28 March, are both seeking the same outcome: ensuring the Russian and Belarusian states cannot be represented in international sport.

We have seen the IOC start to address some of the concerns our group of 35 nations raised in February and that is to be welcomed.

But the IOC’s recommendations do not go far enough for us and they leave far too many unanswered questions. Our deep reservations extend across three areas.

Firstly, there is no reference anywhere in the recommendations to state funding, which as I have said is a breach of neutrality. That issue is simply too fundamental to be ignored and it strikes at the heart of what neutrality is. State funding is state representation.

Secondly, the provisions set out on military and national security agency links are currently minimal, especially when we know that the links between state, military and sport in Russia and Belarus are root and branch.

And if you think that sounds like an exaggeration, consider the fact that the two leading Russia sports societies, the Central Sports Club of the Army (CSKA) and the Dynamo Sports Society, were founded by the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Internal Affairs respectively.

Athletes trained by those two societies consistently bring home by far the largest share of Russian Olympic medals.

Many Russian athletes have been active in their support for Putin’s invasion.

The limited focus of the IOC’s recommendations around people being currently “contracted” to the military or national security agencies really does not account for the intrinsic relationship between the military and security apparatus.

Our concern also covers the potential for loopholes, with people being ‘uncontracted’ before events and then ‘re-contracted’ afterwards to allow them to compete.

In Belarus, the Lukashenko regime maintains close control of Belarusian sport, with the Belarus Olympic Committee and Presidential Sports Club, which provides direct financial support to Belarusian athletes, led by Lukashenko’s sons.

The scenes at the pro-war rally at the Luzhniki Stadium last year, with Putin using Olympic athletes to promote his aggression only served to underline this issue.

Thirdly, we have ongoing serious concerns about how these provisions will be implemented effectively, robustly and consistently.

For example, there are issues around the consistent definition of ‘teams’ and whether pairs of athletes could be allowed. This issue is one that needs further clarification.

Let’s be clear on why this matters. You cannot compete in a team event at the Olympics other than by virtue of being the same nationality and representing your country.

There are no options to pair up across country borders, so there can be no place for any teams, of any numbers

We are already seeing a great deal of confusion across sports as international federations take different approaches on the issue of allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes back into competition…

And our fear is this will only escalate over coming weeks, exacerbated by the current lack of clarity on future participation at Paris 2024 for those Russians and Belarusians who may have qualified at events this summer.

In all of these discussions we must not lose sight of the issues at stake.

More than 220 Ukrainian athletes and coaches have so far lost their lives at the hands of Russian aggression.

Countless more have been forced to flee or defend their homeland from invading forces.

Our countries all have the luxury of talking about our participation in future sporting events – events that will bring joy to millions and showcase our greatest athletes.

Meanwhile Ukrainian sport facilities have been destroyed or severely damaged by this war.

None of us should countenance the idea of a Ukrainian athlete being forced to share a pitch, a court, a field, a starting line with state sponsored athletes from Russia and Belarus.

The IOC must clarify their position or go back to the drawing board. Resolve the issues I have set out today.

Implement an approach that guarantees only truly neutral athletes can participate.

Then we can get back to sport.

Thank you all for your time today.

Published 25 April 2023