BOW VALLEY – Russia and Vladimir Putin aren’t happy with a group of outspoken Olympians from the Bow Valley.
The European nation recently banned 333 Canadians for “the spread of rabid Russophobia”, including a group of 42 retired Olympians with a handful being prominent figures living in, or with ties to, the Bow Valley. The banned Canadians are standing up against any athletes from Russia or Belarus competing at the Paris 2024 Olympics, even as neutral competitors with no flag, until the attacking countries withdraw their forces from war-torn Ukraine.
One former Olympian that Russia’s borders are now closed to is Canmore’s Kelly VanderBeek, an alpine skier and current CBC Sports broadcaster, who said she is standing up when others won’t and is proud to be on Putin’s banned list.
“I think if we never take a stand, nothing will change,” said VanderBeek to the Outlook. “They have tried to show the neutral flag and it has shown to be impotent. They still wear Russian colours, they come home to parades, [and] they are still heralded as state champions. There is no ambiguity. There is no neutral flag. It is a farce. I think to say that we can have a neutral flag is inappropriate and it’s naive.”
In a highly publicized joint statement from the 42 Olympians, which was addressed to the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) in March, it condemned the organization supporting the “‘exploration of a pathway’ for Russians and Belarusians to compete as ‘neutrals’ in the 2024 Paris Olympics.”
Signing the list were big names with current or former ties to the Bow Valley including cross-country skiers Beckie Scott, Chandra Crawford, Sara Renner, Milaine Theriault, Alex Harvey, Devon Kershaw, and Drew Goldsack; biathletes Rosanna Crawford, Brendan Green, and former senior biathlon team coach Roddy Ward; alpine skiers Thomas Grandi and VanderBeek; kayaker David Ford; and multi-sport six-time Winter and Summer Olympic Games medallist Clara Hughes.
On April 12, Russia fired back and banned the retired Canadian Olympians from the country, as well as other prominent figures and politicians, including Banff-Kananaskis MLA Miranda Rosin.
Converted to English on Google Translate, part of the Russian Foreign Ministry statement said:
“Adhering to the principle of the inevitability of punishment, the Russian side, in response to the hostile actions of Ottawa, included on the ‘stop list’ representatives of the Canadian leadership, parliamentarians and politicians of various levels, public activists and athletes involved in the spread of rabid Russophobia in the country. This measure is also intended to encourage those on the ‘black list’ to change their behaviour.”
By putting the Olympian group on its prohibited list, VanderBeek said she thinks Russia is threatened by their collective voice.
“Russia reacting in this way, if anything, is even more indication for why the COC should stand behind the athletes who wrote that letter, who should stand behind respecting a collective voice, not punishing the collective voice, which is what Russia’s doing,” said VanderBeek. “So if nothing else, this proves our point. This only reaffirms our position and this exactly proves why it was necessary and if Russia is listening, the COC should be listening.”
Shortly after the Olympians' public statement in March, the COC responded, stating its position has been supporting the ban of athletes from Russia and Belarus from competing in Paris 2024, and has been, while the invasion is ongoing.
“Our position, consistent over the past year, is that we support the exclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes from international sport while the invasion is ongoing,” the COC statement said. “This is aligned with the recent statement, signed by Canada and more than 30 other Nations, that call for the continuation of the ban in the absence of clarity and concrete details on a workable neutrality model.”
The COC added the door remains open for dialogue with the Olympian group.
Since the Ukraine invasion in February 2022, Russian and Belarusian athletes have been widely banned, even as neutrals, from competing at major international competitions such as with the International Ski and Snowboard Federation (FIS) and International Biathlon Union (IBU). However, that could change.
On April 5, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made its recommendations to National Olympic Committees (NOC), stating athletes with Russian and Belarusian passports should be able to compete as Individual Neutral Athletes. Furthermore, any athletes actively supporting the war or enlisted in either the Russian or Belarusian military cannot participate. The Individual Neutral Athletes must also meet all anti-doping requirements, as well.
When it comes to Paris 2024, the Ukrainian government's stance is that its athletes will not compete in qualifying events if athletes with a Russian passport compete, too.
The IOC said there are more than 70 active armed conflicts, wars or crises worldwide.
“NOCs in the regions impacted by these armed conflicts and wars are following the principles of the Olympic Charter,” said the IOC statement.
“The IOC has always followed and will also follow in this case its policy to protect the athletes. Therefore, if this was implemented, the athletes who want to compete and would lose the support of their National Sports Federation and their National Olympic Committee because of government interference, could count on the direct support of the Olympic Movement’s Solidarity Fund for the Olympic community of Ukraine and the athletes’ support programmes of the IOC.”
When speaking out against Russian and Belarusian athletes participating in Paris 2024, VanderBeek said she knew there would be repercussions and hesitancy from others, which was why the group needed to stand up.
“[Russian athletes] don’t have the freedom to be able to stand up against a war, they don’t have the freedom to stand up against doping,” said VanderBeek. “[Russian] athletes aren’t even allowed to be on a team unless they don’t ask questions and just do as they’re told.”
VanderBeek added she's had amazing experiences with the Russian people previously, but struggles with the powers that be within the country. She hopes Russia withdraws from the bloody military invasion of Ukraine.
“There’s a lot going on in the world, there’s a lot for Russia to be mad at and afraid at, and to be honest, it’s almost, I don’t want to say laughable, because it’s not, our collective voices have power, but it is an indication that they are rattled right now, they are scared and they are trying to impose their will in an authoritative manner,” she said. “So if nothing else, them putting us on this list exactly exemplifies why we need to stand up. Why we need to use our voices and why we did what we did.”