Liam Morgan

Cutting through the diplomatic waffle and reading between the lines, as you so often have to do with Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) threat to Belarus yesterday was a severe one.

Allegations from Belarusian athletes that President Alexander Lukashenko - also head of the National Olympic Committee of the Republic of Belarus (NOCRB), remember - has led a campaign of discrimination against them for speaking out or protesting his regime following his disputed re-election, seem to have finally sparked the IOC into action.

Some might say this warning and subsequent investigation are long overdue, but, in fairness to the IOC, Lukashenko and the NOCRB have given the organisation a reason to intervene in this instance.

According to a letter signed by around 680 Belarusian athletes and sent to the IOC, "many athletes have been tortured, beaten and arrested" for daring to speak out or criticise Lukashenko, whose controversial re-election has led to widespread protests across the country.

Another athlete, former Women’s National Basketball Association player Yelena Leuchanka, has been detained for 15 days for participating in opposition protests.

Such is the gravity of the accusations that it would have been negligent at best had the IOC turned a blind eye, as it has done in the past.

Bach struck a concerned tone when discussing the Belarusian crisis yesterday, describing the claims from the athletes as "very worrying".

The IOC President also directly referenced the sanctions available to the organisation if it decides the NOCRB is in breach of its duties under the Olympic Charter, which include a potential ban on the Belarusian flag and making its athletes compete as neutrals at Tokyo 2020 next year. He would not have done so if he did not feel the IOC might have to use them.

The IOC has, however, tended to make a lot of noise when it comes Government interference in National Olympic Committees (NOCs), which often does not lead to any concrete actions.

The IOC Executive Board sent a warning to Belarus during its latest remote meeting ©IOC
The IOC Executive Board sent a warning to Belarus during its latest remote meeting ©IOC

While this case differs in the sense it involves alleged direct interference from the NOC on the country’s athletes, the IOC’s track record when it comes to such incidences may be a cause for concern among those who are hoping Belarus is punished.

As well as expressing concern, Bach also said the IOC had already received two answers from NOCRB as part of its investigation - one "confirming" that its athlete selection process for Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 "will be based strictly on results in major sports events" rather than their political views, and another highlighting how Leuchanka is no longer a member of the national team.

The IOC has used similar correspondence from other NOCs, notably Iran, when dealing with Government interference in NOCs and the country's athletes as an excuse not to act.

In recent memory, only Kuwait and India - the latter of which is considerable in size but hardly an Olympic superpower - have been suspended for Government interference in the NOC’s affairs, strictly prohibited by the Olympic Charter.

There will be plenty who believe Belarus, a country that has given up even pretending to be a democracy, should be added to that list amid the egregious allegations from a spate of the country’s athletes.

Others will suggest this type of scandal has been coming and that there is always the risk of such blatant interference when the nation’s President and the head of its NOC are the same person.

This scenario, which surely should have been outlawed by the IOC long ago, applies to at least four countries - Azerbaijan, Belarus, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

China, the host of the next Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, falls into the category below the country’s President holding the same role at the NOC. The Chinese Olympic Committee (COC) is essentially controlled by the Sports Ministry, and the head of that department, Gou Zhongwen, sits at the top of the COC.

IOC President Thomas Bach said the allegations against Belarus were very concerning ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach said the allegations against Belarus were very concerning ©Getty Images

There are plenty of other examples of Government involvement, either direct or indirect, across the 206 NOCs eligible to send teams to the Olympic Games.

The IOC has allowed this to happen, while simultaneously bleating about good governance and how the autonomy of NOCs and other organisations in the Olympic Movement needs to be protected.

In those cases where the Charter has been breached, in some instances highlighted by the NOC itself in a bid to remove the Government’s stranglehold on its organisation, the IOC seems to have a politically selective approach.

Major Olympic countries, such as the United States and Italy, are currently grappling with this issue. Their respective Governments are at different stages of introducing legislation which threatens the autonomy of its NOC, but do not expect the IOC to suspend either of them.

Italy is hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics and Paralympics, while the US is not only staging the 2028 Summer Games, but the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee is the largest beneficiary of funding from the IOC among all 206 NOCs.

It is far easier for the IOC to suspend Kuwait than Italy or the US, for example.

Alexander Lukashenko is President of Belarus and the country's NOC ©Belarus Government
Alexander Lukashenko is President of Belarus and the country's NOC ©Belarus Government

The IOC has a raft of Government interference issues related to NOCs in its in-tray, and the organisation is not bereft of blame for that.

Not only are the rules open to interpretation and as clear as mud - the Olympic Charter is a "flexible" document - but the IOC has seemingly failed to sufficiently monitor, and improve, the governance of its NOCs.

The Association of Summer Olympic International Federations has made considerable strides in this area with its members, so why can’t the IOC? Shouldn’t the IOC be doing more to examine governance at NOCs?

Granted there are 206 of them, which adds another layer of complexity, and it would be a difficult task for all sorts of reasons, not least politically. But it is not impossible.

What is possible is that unless the IOC gets a grip of this particular challenge before it is too late, the situation in Belarus will not be the last of its kind.