Polish Sports Minister Kamil Bortniczuk  claims that up to 40 nations are opposed to the return of Russian athletes at Paris 2024 ©Getty Images

Polish Sports Minister Kamil Bortniczuk has claimed that up to 40 countries are opposed to the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes at next year's Olympic Games in Paris, but officials from both the United States and Canada have backed plans for them to return to competition under a neutral banner.

The contentious topic over whether athletes from the two nations should be allowed to compete in international events while war rages in Ukraine continues to divide the world as more countries express their view.

Russia and Belarus have been cast into the sporting wilderness since the invasion of Ukraine in February last year but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is exploring ways for athletes from the two countries to compete under "strict conditions" of neutrality in a bid to quality for Paris 2024.

Poland, which has welcomed more Ukrainian refugees than any other nation since Russia’s invasion, has been one of the most vocal opponents to the move to reintroduce Russian and Belarusian athletes and believe many other countries feel the same way.

"I think that next week a very firm stance on the part of representatives from these 40 countries will see the light of day," said Bortniczuk on Polish state television.

Sports Ministers from Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are against athletes from the
Sports Ministers from Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are against athletes from the "agressor countries" competing as Ukraine remains under attack from Russia with the assistance of Belarus ©Getty Images

Bortniczuk is among four Sports Ministers to issue a joint statement calling on the IOC and International Federations to ensure sanctions remain in place against Russia and Belarus.

Estonian Minister of Culture Piret Hartman, Lithuanian Minister of Education, Science and Sport Jurgita Šiugždinienė and Latvian Anda Čakša joined Bortniczuk in voicing their opposition to return of athletes from the "aggressor countries" and "allowing sport to be used to legitimise and distract attention from Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine".

"Efforts to return Russian and Belarusian athletes to international sports competitions under the veil of neutrality legitimize political decisions and widespread propaganda of these countries also through the use of sport as a distraction from the illegal aggression against Ukraine," the joint statement read.

"We highly appreciate all international sport organizations and federations that have removed athletes and representatives of Russia and Belarus from international competitions and organisations and we urge them not to change their position until Russia and Belarus stop their aggression against Ukraine.

"We need to ensure justice and accountability by bringing the perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide to justice."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for its "principled position" in a post on Twitter, insisting "we won’t allow sport to be used against humanity and for war propaganda".

Bortniczuk told Reuters that Canada was among the 40 countries that were against the return of Russian and Belarusian athletes, but the Canadian Olympic Committee revealed that it was open to exploring a pathway for them to compete under a neutral banner at Paris 2024.

"The Canadian Olympic Committee continues to support the recommendation made by the IOC in February 2022 that athletes and officials from Russia and Belarus should not be invited or allowed to participate in international competitions," said COC chief executive David Shoemaker.

"However, we recognise that the decision to exclude athletes solely by virtue of their nationality also goes against core principles of the Olympic Movement.

"We are open to the exploration of a pathway for the inclusion of neutral athletes Russian and Belarusian who meet, at a minimum, the conditions set out by the IOC Executive Board in its January 25, 2023 statement."

The US has stressed that it must be "absolutely clear" that athletes are "not representing the Russian or Belarusian states" should they be permitted to compete, according to White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre.

Jean-Pierre also backed sanctions likely to be set by the IOC, including Russia and Belarus having to compete under a neutral flag and the national anthem not being played at medal ceremonies.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre Karine Jean-Pierre stressed that it must be
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre Karine Jean-Pierre stressed that it must be "absolutely clear" that Russian and Belarusian athletes are not representing their respective nations at Paris 2024 ©Getty Images

The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) has also supported efforts to reintroduce Russian and Belarusian athletes as neutrals.

The Associated Press obtained a letter from USOPC chair Gene Sykes sent out to US athletes and other stakeholders which outlined the organisation’s position.

"After listening to many athletes and constituents from around the United States, we recognize a real desire to compete against all the world’s best athletes - but only if that can happen in a way that ensures safe and fair play," Sykes wrote.

Sykes admitted that there was "very real concern, even scepticism about whether [conditions] can be met".

"As such, we encouraged the IOC to continue exploring a process that would preserve the existing sanctions, ensuring only neutral athletes who are clean are welcome to compete," Sykes wrote.

"This process will require careful management and will demand extra efforts to earn the confidence and trust of our community.

"If these conditions of neutrality and safe, clean, and fair competition can be met, we believe the spirit of the Olympic and Paralympic Games can prevail.

"This will continue to be our guiding focus."