Russia and Belarus' absence was discussed at the Kraków-Małopolska 2023 opening press conference ©ITG

Kraków-Małopolska 2023 Organising Committee President Marcin Nowak has insisted it was an "easy decision" to exclude Russian and Belarusian athletes from the European Games here.

Last year, it was confirmed Russian and Belarusian athletes would not be present in any capacity at Kraków-Małopolska 2023.

Poland has been among the nations most vocal in its criticism of the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) decision to relax its recommended outright ban in March, with the country having played a huge role in the Ukrainian refugee relief effort.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, nearly one million refugees from Ukraine are recorded in Poland and more than 1.6 million have applied for asylum or a national protection scheme.

Kraków is around two-and-a-half hours' drive from the Ukrainian border, and Nowak outlined how Poland had welcomed refugees from the country "into our homes and our hearts" since the start of the Russian invasion.

Poland's close proximity to Ukraine was a contributing factor in what Nowak said was a straightforward decision not to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete at the European Games.

"Many millions of refugees fleeing from warfare showed the Poles that the spirit of the nation had not died," he said.

"We, as a nation, have shown great solidarity, which the world has not yet experienced.

"Several million refugees were received not in tents, neither in camps nor in halls.

"These people have found a place in our homes.

Kraków-Małopolska 2023 President Marcin Nowak said Russia and Belarus' absence from the European Games was an
Kraków-Małopolska 2023 President Marcin Nowak said Russia and Belarus' absence from the European Games was an "easy decision" ©EOC

"It was an easy decision to make, we didn’t have to reflect on it too much.

"We decided those two teams had no right to compete with the other athletes on an equal footing."

Polish Sports Minister Kamil Bortniczuk concurred that he felt Russian and Belarusian athletes should not be permitted to compete at the Games with signs the war is intensifying, and renewed his criticism of the IOC.

The IOC has allowed Russian and Belarusian athletes to return as individual neutrals provided they do not support the war in Ukraine and are not affiliated to the military, although there have been doubts over how strictly this is being enforced across sports which have followed its recommendations.

Bortniczuk revealed Poland is working with Ukraine on a database to examine the behaviour of athletes from both countries.

"The position of the International Olympic Committee is pretty foggy, it does not have a very clear-cut definition of what terms and conditions would have to be met here," he argued.

"We are waiting for the IOC to have a clear-cut definition, but together with the Ukrainian Government we are already preparing a special database on the Russian and Belarusian athletes and the way they have conducted themselves."

Ukraine has sent a team of 265 athletes to the European Games, and European Olympic Committees (EOC) President Spyros Capralos focused on support provided to the nation since the start of the war.

"We are very happy that Ukraine will be participating in the Games with their top athletes," the IOC member in Greece said.

"I think they have done at this difficult time such a huge effort to be able first of all to survive, second to be able to compete, and third to compete at the highest possible level.

Poland has been among the leading nations which has supported the Ukrainian refugee relief effort ©Getty Images
Poland has been among the leading nations which has supported the Ukrainian refugee relief effort ©Getty Images

"We are happy and hope they get a lot of medals and qualifications for next year's Olympic Games in Paris.

"The European Olympic Committees together with the International Olympic Committee have been on the side of the Ukrainian Olympic Committee and their athletes.

"We have been helping them financially, not only directly in Ukraine but also for all the athletes that left the country and had to train in different places, they have been hosted by our National Olympic Committees as a strong signal of solidarity among Europe because we tried to make them feel at home in whichever country they trained and competed before leading to here.

"I am sure the Ukrainian athletes will receive a standing ovation in the stands at the Opening Ceremony tomorrow, and we are all heartedly on their side to help them further going to Paris."

However, Capralos would not be drawn on future decisions regarding Russia and Belarus' participation at EOC events.

"We know there are no Russian and Belarusian athletes here," he said.

"That was the decision taken and we stick to that decision.

"Who knows what will happen in the future four years from today [for the next European Games].

"Let's now stay here and enjoy our Games in Poland, Krakow-Malopolska, such a beautiful region and we will enjoy it."

The Krakow-Malopolska 2023 European Games are due to start tomorrow and run until July 2.