World Athletics President Sebastian Coe had staunchly defended his federation's ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes ©Getty Images

World Athletics President Sebastian Coe has strongly defended his federation’s decision not to allow Russians or Belarusians to take part in its competitions in the wake of last year’s invasion of Ukraine, insisting: "I am not a neutral."

Coe's phrase, uttered during an international media roundtable, may have been a pointed reference to the language employed in the last year by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which recommended on March 24 that Russians and Belarusians should be allowed to take part in international competitions as "individual neutrals" on the basis that they do not support the war or have connections with the military.

The position adopted by the IOC in March contrasts strongly with the stance they adopted on February 28 last year, four days after the invasion began, when they recommended that Russian and Belarusian athletes should be banned from all international competition due to the invasion, a statement that prompted numerous International Federations, including World Athletics, to follow suit.

After making it clear that it would not normally seek to punish athletes for the decisions of a Government if they were not actively participating in them, the IOC said that the war in Ukraine was an exceptional circumstance and the IOC Executive Committee had made the decision in order to "protect the integrity of global sports competitions and for the safety of all participants."

But towards the end of last year the IOC President Thomas Bach began to emphasise that "no athlete should be prevented from competing just because of their passport."

In Paris last week, while presiding over the IOC invitations ceremony for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, that start on July 26 next year, Bach said: "The mission of the Olympic Games is to untie the entire world in peaceful competition,

"In our fragile world with conflicts and divisions and wars, we need this unifying power more than ever.

IOC President Thomas Bach emphasised in Paris last week that the Olympics must
IOC President Thomas Bach emphasised in Paris last week that the Olympics must "build bridges", and advocated for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete internationally as "individual neutrals" ©Getty Images

"The Olympic Games must always build bridges. 

"The Olympic Games must never erect walls."

Asked to respond to Bach’s midweek statements, in which he also maintained that Ukrainian and Russian and Belarusian individual competitors were already taking part in international events without raising "security issues", Coe told insidethegames: "Athletics will not be on the wrong side of history.

"We made a judgement as a Council last year that was well-nigh unanimous.

"We made that decision within days of the illegal invasion of a sovereign state, and we did it for reasons of integrity - this wasn’t about passports or politics.

"You just simply had a nation that could no longer compete and was having its infrastructure destroyed and I couldn’t in conscience offer a panoply of service and status to athletes from countries that were bringing that about.

"It just stuck in my throat - it was as simple as that, and that’s how it felt for the rest of the sport.

“We made the same decision and reinforced the decision again at our May Council meeting and that’s where we sit.

"But nor do we ever want to be the Computer-Says-No Federation.

"So we will always review the situation, in fact I’ve just created a working group that will look, when the time is right, at what are the metrics that might need to pertain in order to release sanctions and reverse the exclusion.

World Athletics President Sebastian Coe maintains that his federation's ban on the participation of Russian and Belarusian competitors was made for reasons of
World Athletics President Sebastian Coe maintains that his federation's ban on the participation of Russian and Belarusian competitors was made for reasons of "integrity", adding: "Athletics will not be on the wrong side of history" ©Getty Images

"It’s not our ambition to have this as the status quo, any more than it was our ambition when we suspended Russia around the egregious attack on the integrity of our sport through doping.

"Was it our ambition then just to close the door and say ‘that’s it’?

"We created a working group with Rune Andersen and the teams and we actually got to where we wanted to.

"The position became more complicated because of the geopolitical systems.

"So we made a decision.

"We didn’t benchmark it against what we thought would be public opinion or what other sports were going to do.

"We certainly didn’t do it against some of the dissenting voices at the time."

Coe, who has hinted that he will run for the IOC Presidency at the 2025 election, added: "These are difficult issues but you have to address them.

"Sometimes decisions become very obvious the closer you get to them, but this decision for me was never in question.

"I’m afraid I can’t be neutral.

"On the eve of the Munich 2022 European Championships I sat with a Ukrainian girl who had lost her mother four hours earlier in an attack on a tower block in Kyiv.

"I’m sorry, I’m not a neutral."