Could Russia take the Asian route to Paris Olympics?
Currently frozen out of the Olympics, European superpowers Russia have received some new hope for Paris 2024 - an invitation to the Asian qualifiers.
The four-year ban on Russia at the Olympics is set to be over on Friday, December 16, but geopolitical events from the past year have meant that there is no celebrations in Moscow. Still frozen out of international sports, Russia's only hope of appearing at the Paris Olympics in 2024 seems to be by competing as part of Asia rather than Europe.
Russia has territory across Europe and Asia but is traditionally considered part of Europe for the purposes of sports events. Other transcontinental countries like Turkey, Israel, Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia are also geographically majorly in Asia but due to political or cultural reasons are usually assigned to Europe.
Israel was banished from Asian sporting events to Europe in the 1980s; four decades later, it seems Russia is being banished from European sporting events to Asia.
Russian athletes competed at the 2020 Olympics under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) owing to the four-year ban imposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for state-sponsored doping. In normal circumstances they would now have been celebrating the return of their national flag and anthem. But the ongoing invasion of Ukraine has derailed all of Russia's sporting ambitions.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recommended on February 28 this year — four days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began — that Russian and Belarusian athletes should be excluded. Most Olympic sports followed its lead and imposed bans. FIFA also removed Russian teams from World Cup qualifying campaigns.
Asia comes to Russia's rescue
Russia are a traditional superpower at the Olympics. Formerly competing as the USSR, they have been in the top two in the Olympics medal tally at every edition till 2004. It is only in the last couple of decades that China and Great Britain have surged ahead of them. But Vladimir Putin's war on Ukraine this year seemed to lead Russia to the lowest point of their sporting history.
But after nine months of complete isolation from the world of sports, the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) has come to Russia's rescue.
"The OCA offered to facilitate the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus in competitions in Asia under its authority, while respecting the sanctions in place," said a statement from the IOC last week. The IOC welcomed this 'creative plan' which can provide a potential way for Russian athletes to compete in continental events which serve as qualifiers for the Olympics. The qualifying tournaments have already started in some sports.
If IOC's statement on Russia being part of Asian continental qualifiers comes to pass, Russia's 2024 Olympics campaign will have been saved.
"Something which few believed in even recently could soon become reality," Russian Olympic Committee president Stanislav Pozdnyakov wrote on Telegram following the IOC statement.
Consultations are planned with sports federations, athletes and national sports bodies over the next few days, but Russian athletes are already celebrating their journey from across the Ural mountains.
Could Russia be part of the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China next year? Time will tell, but if that does come to pass, the profile of the continental showpiece will be taken higher by a notch.
Will India be affected?
A natural question for Indian sports fans is whether Russia's shift to Asia, given that they will turn out to be one of Asia's strongest representatives at the Olympics, can hurt India's chances. Even at the 2020 Olympics, where Russia (or ROC) were at 5th place on the medal tally - their worst ever campaign - Russian athletes won 71 medals. They dominated sports like Fencing and Gymnastics, also producing impressive displays in Swimming, Wrestling, Boxing and Taekwondo.
India's biggest medal hopefuls - in Badminton, Hockey, Weightlifting, Athletics - do not have much competition to expect from Russia. Mirabai Chanu is set to get added competition in Asian tournaments from Russia's Kristina Sobol, but it is still the Chinese lifters who will be the bigger challenge.
In Boxing and Wrestling, sports where both India and Russia are set to have a sizeable contingent, both federations are set to get one automatic spot in every category, but there could be some continental quotas over which there might be a wrangle.
Speaking on a possible ban on Russia at the 2024 Olympics, IOC President Thomas Bach had said earlier this year: "The war in Ukraine is a blatant violation of the Olympic truce...We do not know how this situation evolves... (but) there would be a time to rebuild bridges through sport."
By extending the olive branch to Russia, the OCA, headed by Raja Randhir Singh of India, might have taken the first step towards that.