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article imageIOC faces delicate dilemma over Ukraine unrest

By Stuart Williams (AFP)     Feb 20, 2014 in World

The deadly violence convulsing Ukraine in the midst of the Winter Olympics has put the International Olympic Committee in a delicate situation as it seeks to keep politics out of the Games and implement rules banning mourning symbols.

The IOC's new president Thomas Bach has repeated throughout the Sochi 2014 Olympics -– shadowed by concerns about hosts Russia's own rights record –- that political statements should not be made "on the backs of athletes".

However the upsurge in violence in Ukraine, which has now left dozens dead, means a political crisis is now overshadowing the world's biggest celebration of winter sport as it enters the closing phase.

The spotlight on Ukrainian athletes at the Games is even greater given the head of the Ukrainian Olympic Committee is the pole vault legend Sergey Bubka, a member of the IOC who is one of his country's best known figures.

So far, only two members of the Ukrainian team –- an alpine skier and her father-coach –- are known to have pulled out the Games in what they said was a protest against the use of force by the authorities.

But the biggest controversy has been whether Ukrainian athletes should wear black armbands as a symbol of their grief, something that the IOC says would fly in the face of its Charter.

The IOC is strictly interpreting a sub-section to rule 50 of the Olympic Charter which states that "no form of publicity or propaganda, commercial or otherwise" may appear on athletes or their sportswear.

-'Not in spirit of Olympic charter'-

The Ukrainian Olympic Committee said in a statement Wednesday that the IOC had blocked a request that its athletes wear black armbands.

But IOC spokesman Mark Adams denied this was the case and said IOC officials and the Ukrainian delegation had agreed between themselves that other actions would be more appropriate.

Bubka, the 1988 Olympic champion issued a new statement Thursday to say he had "great sympathy" with the idea to wear black armbands.

"However after consultation with the IOC, it was agreed that such symbolic gestures by athletes would not be in the spirit of the Olympic Charter.

"Therefore both parties agreed that another way of allowing Ukraine athletes to mark their respects should be found."

Ukrainian athletes have held a minute of silence in memory of the victims of the violence and pinned black ribbons to their flags in the Olympic village.

Meanwhile, Bubka has insisted that Ukrainian athletes will continue to represent the country at the Games "on a mission of unity".

But he added he would respect any individual's decision to pull out.

Ukraine's Sergey Bubka  executive board member arrives for the opening session of the Internati...
Ukraine's Sergey Bubka, executive board member arrives for the opening session of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) executive board meeting in Sochi prior to the start of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics on February 2, 2014 in Sochi
Alexander Nemenov, AFP

With the IOC in no way wanting to be seen as heartless in the face of grief, its spokesman Adams Thursday gave an insight into the quandary on the issue.

He said that in such a large event, it would always be the case that there were athletes burdened by personal or even national tragedies.

"We try to concentrate on sport," he said. "The idea is to help them (athletes) find other ways" to grieve other than the use of symbols on their kit, he said.

The deadly violence in Ukraine is not the first time the question of mourning symbols has shadowed these Games.

Norway's female cross-country skiing team, including Olympic champion Marit Bjoergen, wore black armbands in one race, in tribute to the brother of teammate Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen who died on the eve of the Games.

As a result, their national Olympic committee received a reprimand from the IOC.

Freestyle skiers and snowboarders were also told not to wear tributes on their kit to Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke, who died after a halfpipe training accident in the United States 2012.

Adams left open the possibility of mourning symbols being discussed as part of the IOC's agenda 2020 review but said there was "no specific demand" for this.

More about oly, 2014, Ukraine, Politics, Unrest
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