Russia critical of rules allowing some of its swimmers to compete as neutrals ahead of the Olympics

LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — Russian officials have criticized a plan to offer some of its swimmers the chance to return to international competitions ahead of the Paris Olympics, arguing it doesn’t go far enough.

It could be another five months before any Russian swimmers compete at a major event.

Governing body World Aquatics has excluded swimmers from Russia and its ally Belarus since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, but on Monday launched a scheme to grant “Neutral Individual Athlete” status to athletes who pass a vetting procedure.

The measure comes with conditions. World Aquatics mandates no national symbols, plain white uniforms, and only one Russian and one Belarusian “neutral” athlete per event. That means no relays, no synchronized diving or water polo, and none of the artistic swimming duets and teams which have brought Russia a string of Olympic gold medals.

“No improvement has been observed in this situation” was the verdict of the Russian Swimming Federation on Tuesday. The president of Russia’s governing body for artistic swimming, three-time Olympic gold medalist Olga Brusnikina, told broadcaster Match TV that “very serious” damage had been done to Russia’s hopes of competing.

World Aquatics said it is likely that the world championships in February will be the first of its competitions to feature neutral athletes. That’s because of a potentially time-consuming vetting procedure designed to check if swimmers have publicly supported the war or are contracted to the military or security forces in Russia or Belarus. The last major events of 2023 are World Cup swim meets next month.

The qualifying cutoff for the championships is in December and World Aquatics has mandated that swimmers can only set qualifying times at meets held outside of Russia and Belarus. That could prompt a surge in interest in minor meets abroad in what is normally the swim world’s off-season.

The World Aquatics rules don’t directly apply to next year’s Paris Olympics, where the International Olympic Committee is in charge. The IOC favors admitting some Russians and Belarusians as neutrals, something Ukraine strongly opposes.

World Aquatics is one of the most influential sports bodies at the Olympics. Only track and field has more athletes at the Games. Track’s governing body continues to exclude Russians and Belarusians from its events.

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