Government accused of U-turn after accepting Russian and Belarusian athletes at Olympics

The UK government has been accused of a U-turn after accepting Russian and Belarusian athletes can compete at the 2024 Olympics.

Last year, Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer said athletes "funded by their states" or "who are in receipt of funding or sponsorship directly aligned to their states" cannot be considered neutral in the context of the invasion of Ukraine.

Britain is part of a coalition of like-minded countries which had called for a ban on such athletes due to this funding.

But the government has now confirmed it agrees with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that Russian and Belarusian athletes can compete under a neutral banner at the upcoming Paris Games.

Ms Frazer said on Friday those athletes will be taking part under the "strictest neutrality conditions possible".

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After the position was revealed by The Times earlier this month, there were accusations of a government U-turn on the issue.

Richard Caborn, who was sports minister between 2001 and 2007, said: "This is a humiliating U-turn by Frazer after her forceful speech one year ago to the Council of Europe setting out why Britain should support the total ban of Russian athletes participating in the Paris Olympics."

In her speech last year, Ms Frazer said the IOC's recommendations did "not go far enough", and that a group of more than 30 nations had raised concerns.

The government has rejected the suggestion that it changed course following an IOC threat to prevent the UK from hosting Olympic qualifying events.

Ms Frazer said on Friday that she and sports minister Stuart Andrew are "personally committed to supporting Ukraine in the face of Putin's illegal invasion".

They said it was for each sporting body, like the IOC, to make their own determinations.

Ms Frazer added: "But our position is clear. Putin's regime does not deserve to see its athletes line up on the starting blocks of races or stand on podiums during medal ceremonies as representatives of their countries.

"This has never been about punishing individual Russian or Belarusian athletes.

"What we stand against is athletes competing representing the states of Russia and Belarus.

"We continue to vigorously oppose Russian and Belarusian state participation. Our policy has never been a complete and total ban on neutral athletes from Russia and Belarus participating at all."

The minister pointed out Russian and Belarusian have been able to compete as neutrals in UK tennis competitions.

She insisted the efforts of the government and coalition have been focused on urging Olympic organisers to "change their approach, apply the strictest neutrality conditions possible and ensure they are implemented rigorously".

"After two years of concerted lobbying, they have done that. And the result is that the number of athletes from Russia and Belarus expected to participate in the Olympics is in the tens, not hundreds.

"As a result, we have written to the IOC and International Paralympic Committee noting that their final neutrality rules for Paris achieve the widely accepted baseline of ensuring that Russia and Belarus are not represented as states in international sport."

The IOC expects as many as 54 Russian athletes to compete in Paris.

They will not be able to compete in team disciplines, cannot compete in Russian colours or under the Russian flag and medals will not be included together in a table.

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The IOC is leaving it up to the individual sports to make decisions on whether to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete even as neutrals - World Athletics, for instance, has imposed an outright ban.