Will Russian participation in the Asian Games hurt Indian prospects?
Up to 500 athletes from European nations Russia and Belarus could potentially hamper India's Asian Games glory and Paris Olympics qualification chances.
The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) General Assembly revealed that up to 500 athletes from Russia and Belarus could potentially be allowed to participate in the upcoming 2022 Hangzhou Asian Games which is scheduled to take place from 23 September, 2023 to 6 October, 2023.
While this move would raise the competitiveness of the Asian Games massively, there is a lot more here than meets the eye.
The Bridge breaks down the details of this decision and what it could consequently mean for Indian athletes at the Asian Games and their venture to seek qualification for Paris 2024.
Why is Russia being accommodated?
Ukrainian footballer and Arsenal star Oleksandr Zinchenko recently called for all Russian and Belarusian athletes to be banned from top level sport. He exclaimed, “This is not political. This is war.”
Ever-since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, 2022, the sporting realm cracked down upon Russian athletes. Athletes from Russia were consequently barred from competing in major international sporting events.
Eventually, when they were allowed to participate, the athletes had to compete as independent athletes under a neutral flag. This meant that medals, international rankings, world championship results or other criteria required for them to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics usually evaded Russian athletes.
In January earlier this year, the European Olympic Committee (EOC) refused to accommodate the International Olympic Committee’s request to permit Russian and Belarusian athletes in any international events or European continental tournaments which act as Olympics qualifiers. Consequently, the athletes had no opportunity to qualify for the Paris Olympics.
Eligibility to win medals at the Asian Games is not priority for Russia or Belarus. The move to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete at the Asian Games is a last-ditch attempt to provide a qualification pathway for these athletes to compete at the grandest stage of them all - 2024 Paris Olympics.
Ambiguity hovers over the Asian Games
The Russian and Belarusian athletes would be allowed to compete at the Asian Games under the strict conditions of ‘neutrality’. Along with the mandated absence of national symbols, they would not be awarded medals.
The Olympic Council of Asia’s Acting President Randhir Singh assured that there would be separate medals and Russia and Belarus's participation wouldn’t interfere with the medal system or Asian quota for the Olympic Games.
But since Sheikh Talal Fahad Al Ahmad Al Sabah assumed office as the new President of the OCA, no reference has been made to Singh’s assurances.
Could Indian athletes be compromised?
There is still no assurance that Russia and Belarus’s participation will not eat up Asian qualification quotas for the 2024 Olympics.
Randhir Singh had earlier suggested that it is ‘unlikely’ that athletes from Russia and Belarus would be allowed to participate in combat sports such as wrestling. Instead, they would be confined to sports such as swimming, athletics, and shooting that feature point systems.
Furthermore, there is uncertainty as to what Singh meant by 'separate medals'. Does this mean that three medals would be awarded to Asian nations regardless of the possibility of a Russian or Belarusian finding themselves on the podium?
A confirmation from the OCA is still awaited on these matters.
On one hand, India’s second-most successful discipline at the Asian Games is wrestling. Hence, it is reassuring that Indian wrestlers would not be affected by Russian and Belarusian participation if the OCA stick to Singh’s initial suggestions.
But on the other hand, athletics and shooting are India’s most successful and third-most successful disciplines respectively at the Asian Games. Consequently, the involvement of Russia and Belarus could potentially compromise the Olympics quota for Indian and other Asian athletes in such disciplines.
Who is pulling the strings?
A common question left unanswered is – How did the initiative to involve Russia and Belarus at the Asian Games come about?
It was the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that made their intention to permit Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete at the 2024 Paris Olympics be publicly known in December, 2022.
After the EOC refused to accommodate the IOC’s request, the Asian Games seemed like an opportunistic window to ensure that athletes from Russia and Belarus get to punch their ticket to Paris.
The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) General Assembly recently voted in favour of this move.
It is now up to governing bodies of each of the 31 sports for Paris 2024 to decide whether they will make this plan come to fruition.
A Spectrum of Reactions
Could sports and politics be demarcated? Some may feel that the competition quality of the Asian Games will be elevated if Russia and Belarus are allowed to permit. The sports powerhouse Russia could be expected to dominate many of the disciplines.
In contrast, Ukraine has threatened to boycott the 2024 Paris Olympics if Russia and Belarus are permitted by the IOC to compete.
Russia is still awaiting finalized conditionalities before making an official decision.
A meeting between the IOC and protesting Asian nations is inevitable. Japan’s boxing coach Hiyama Shigeru said, “They are European countries and I don’t understand why they should participate in Asia (to qualify for the Paris Olympics).”