By - Reuters
By Max Hunder
KYIV (Reuters) -Ukraine barred its national sports teams from competing in Olympic, non-Olympic and Paralympic events which include competitors from Russia and Belarus, the sports ministry said in a decree on Friday.
Ukraine's deputy sports minister, who signed off on the move, told Reuters in an interview that it was a "bad decision" but one that was better than the alternative.
The decree, criticised by some Ukrainian athletes, comes after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) angered Kyiv by paving the way for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as neutrals despite Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"We are aware that... this is a bad decision, but in this case there are no good decisions. We are forced to choose between several bad decisions," the minister, Matvii Bidnyi, said.
"We call on other (countries) to also... not take part in these competitions," he said.
Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year, initially using its ally Belarus as a staging ground for troops driving towards Kyiv.
The war, now in its 14th month, has killed tens of thousands, levelled cities and uprooted millions.
Ukraine had previously warned its sports federations that it would strip them of their status as governing bodies if their athletes compete on the international stage with Russians and Belarusians.
When asked, Bidnyi confirmed the Ukrainian ban referred to athletes with Russian or Belarusian passports. He said it would not apply to competitions where competitors represent themselves or their sports club, rather than their country.
The deputy minister said there would be no sanction for those who competed in these competitions other than the disaffiliation of the sport's governing body from the Ukrainian state -- and the resulting loss of public funding.
Asked about the decree, the head of the Ukrainian Association of Football, Andriy Pavelko, told Reuters the UAF would comply with government decisions.
"We are at war. We do not have the possibility to travel abroad without approval from the sports ministry," Pavelko said, referring to the wartime ban on able-bodied men aged between 18 and 60 leaving the country without government permission.
Pavelko said the body was currently making inquiries with the ministry about which competitions would be affected, as this was not clear.
Ukraine's football team are due to play the next rounds of qualifiers for the 2024 European Championship in June.
Russia have been banned from competitions by European governing body UEFA due to the invasion, but Belarus are still participating, albeit in a different qualifying group to Ukraine.
Asked about Ukraine's participation in the Euro 2024 qualifiers, Bidnyi declined to give a definite answer, but said that participation in qualifying groups where there was no possibility of playing Russia or Belarus would "most likely" not fall foul of the order.
MOVE DRAWS COMPLAINT
Some Ukrainian athletes, including Olympian skeleton racer Vladyslav Heraskevych, criticised the ban saying it would lead to the destruction of Ukrainian sports.
"If Ukrainian representatives are not present at competitions, then we completely vacate the international sports grounds and give the Russian/Belarusian representatives the opportunity to promote their narratives and propaganda," he wrote on Twitter.
Bidnyi rejected those comments as "manipulation", and said Ukraine would still send delegations to competitions in order to represent Ukraine without competing.
"We will go, submit protests, collect information, highlight violations... and any other method to bring the world's attention to the need to not allow Russians into (competitions)."
The IOC sanctioned Russia and Belarus last year but in late March it recommended allowing their athletes to compete as neutrals in international competition. It also opened the door to allow them to qualify for next year's Summer Olympics in Paris.
(Reporting by Max Hunder in Kyiv and Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Robert Birsel and Pritha Sarkar)