Mike Rowbottom

If anyone was still in doubt about the fact that politics and sport do mix - however much International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach might like to think otherwise - the actuality was laid out in steadfast fashion in Kraków yesterday.

Asked at a closing press conference about the decision not to allow Russian or Belarusian athletes to take part in the Krakow-Malopolska 2023 European Games, Kamil Bortniczuk, Minister of Sports and Tourism, responded: "Our position since the first day of the war has not changed."

Sitting alongside the European Olympic Committees (EOC) President Spyros Capralos and the EOC chair of the 3rd European Games Coordination Commission, Hasan Arat, he added:

"Mr President, Hasan, thank you because we have kept our word in a number of areas including this particular one on the athletes from Belarus and Russia. 

"It goes to show it is possible to organise such events without athletes from Russia and Belarus.

“We would be happy to welcome athletes from Russia and Belarus in venues, but peace comes first and compensation for damages and losses, and only then can the sport world open up to these athletes.

Kamil Bortniczuk, Poland's Minister of Sports and Tourism, praised the steadfastness shown in banning Russian and Belarusian athletes from the recently concluded Kraków-Małopolska 2023 European Games ©Kraków-Małopolska 2023
Kamil Bortniczuk, Poland's Minister of Sports and Tourism, praised the steadfastness shown in banning Russian and Belarusian athletes from the recently concluded Kraków-Małopolska 2023 European Games ©Kraków-Małopolska 2023

"This is the situation we would like to see the IOC do."

Capralos, himself an IOC member, commented briefly that he believed it was the right thing to do under the circumstances.

"I think we took the right decision," he said. 

"Nobody looked after what happened there. 

"Everybody looked at the great results of our athletes and the great competition. 

"Regarding the future at the Olympic Games, it is the IOC who decide."

The IOC has already marked Russia and Belarus' card by saying that their athletes will not be eligible to compete in team events at the Paris 2024 Games. 

But the final decision over whether athletes will be allowed to compete as "neutrals" next year remains to be taken.

The fear, clearly realistic, is that Russian President Vladimir Putin will seek to garner glory for his regime and continuing aggression in Ukraine through the sporting exploits of Russia’s "neutral" athletes.

Some Russian athletes have already made it clear by word and deed - such as wearing the "Z" symbol for the cause of the war - that they support the action in Ukraine.

Others, such as tennis player Andrey Rublev, have done as much as is feasible to indicate their wish for the war not to continue.

But who seriously would expect a Russian or Belarusian to denounce Putin or his policy? They have families to think of. What are they expected to do?

If the IOC does decide to allow "neutral" Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete at Paris 2024, after they have gone through whatever hoops are deemed essential, there will almost certainly be some who revert to a more bold and nationalistic attitude in victory, and who will be hailed in Moscow as a vindication of the Russian policy and perceived pre-eminence.

Moscow has a particular resonance here, of course, as it was their Olympics of 1980 that were boycotted by 65 countries and partially boycotted by a number of others in protest at Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

More than 40 years on - in the United States, in Canada, in Germany, and, as far as those in equestrian events, hockey, shooting and yachting were concerned, in Britain - there is a generation of athletes still nursing a sense of loss over their exclusion from those Games.

A never-to-be-assuaged sense of what might have been. And a lingering feeling that they had paid a price for something that had nothing to do with them.

The hard truth is, however, that if Russia and Belarus are kept from competing in Paris 2024 they will have athletes nursing the same lifelong feelings.

Last night in Stockholm’s 1912 Olympic Stadium, sport became the victim, or at least the target, of further political action - albeit for a cause with which many leading sportsmen and women sympathise.

As the Diamond League men’s 400 metres hurdles race reached its closing stages and the runners came into the finishing straight, three climate change activists ran onto the track 10 metres from the line and, spreading themselves across the six inside lanes, stretched out two banners between them calling for an end to peat mining.

Runners ran through the posters as if they were old-fashioned finishing tapes before crossing the real line in bemused fashion.

The race was won by Norway’s Olympic champion and world record holder Karsten Warholm, unaffected by the actions of the three members of the A22 network as he was running in one of the outside lanes.

"It is permissible to protest, but this is not the way to do it," Warholm told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.

 "It is disrespectful to those who are here to do a good job."

Many climate change protestors are adamant that such actions are justified - that such is the measure of threat imposed upon us all by the unchecked climate crisis that the end justifies the means.

Meanwhile, in SW19, Britain’s Andy Murray, Wimbledon men’s singles champion in 2013 and 2016, has been reflecting upon the inevitability of similar protests occurring during this year’s competition, just as they have at the Grand National, the World Snooker Championships and the recent Ashes Test match - where one protester was hauled away by England’s Jonny Bairstow - which have been disrupted by Just Stop Oil protestors.

"I think there is probably a good chance of something happening," said Murray ahead of the start of the first round today.

Britain's twice Wimbledon champion Andy Murray believes there is
Britain's twice Wimbledon champion Andy Murray believes there is "a good chance" climate change protestors will target this year's Champiionships, which began today ©Getty Images

"I was talking about it with my family the other day. I don't know, if somebody ran onto the court and came towards you, what your reaction would be to that because you don't know who it is or what they are doing or why they are doing it.

"I didn't see what Jonny Bairstow did, but it could be dangerous. If they would attach themselves to the net or throw something onto the court - they have to be a bit careful going near to tennis players who obviously have got rackets in their hands."

He added: "I agree with the cause - just not always how they go about expressing it. 

Rather than running on the court, maybe they could do it a different way."

It would be hard to imagine two more sympathetic and thoughtful characters in sport than Warholm and Murray. But sadly that is not the point.

Why is it always sport that seems to take the hit? Simply, because people care about it and notice what happens in it.

It’s a cold comfort.