Keep politics out of 2020 Tokyo Games, says IOC's Bach

LAUSANNE, Switzerland (Reuters) - Politicians and athletes should keep politics out of this year’s Tokyo Olympic Games to protect the event’s neutrality and its status as a peaceful meeting place, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said on Thursday.

Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Athletes Commission Chair and IOC member Kirsty Coventry attend a news conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, January 9, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

The Games have seen both political protests by athletes in the past as well as boycotts of nations and Bach said any infusion of politics into the Games in Tokyo starting on July 24 would not be welcome.

Tensions between the United States and Iran have risen sharply in recent days prompting major concerns across the world, while South Korea has said there is an urgent need to improve ties with North Korea.

China, Japan and South Korea recently agreed to work together to promote dialogue between the United States and reclusive North Korea.

“The mission of the Olympics is to unite and not to divide. We are the only event in the world that gets the entire world together in a peaceful competition,” Bach told reporters after a meeting with the IOC athletes’ commission chief Kirsty Coventry.

“I ask them (politicians and athletes) to respect this mission of the Olympic Games and in order to accomplish this mission we must be politically neutral.

“Otherwise we would end up in this divisive and boycott situation. I ask them to respect this political neutrality by not using them (the Olympics) as a stage for their political purposes.”

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The Games of 1980 and 1984 were hit by boycotts that did not have any results, Bach said.

“The boycotts we had particularly in the 1980s with Moscow and the counter-boycott in Los Angeles which brought the Games to the brink of demise... had no effect whatsoever.

“Sport was a kind of a scapegoat because all the other political divisions were not affected. The Moscow boycott did not change anything in Afghanistan at the time and the counter-boycott in 1984 did nothing to change politically the United States or the foreign policy in the U.S.”

More recently, at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics, Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby was sent home after refusing to shake the hand of Israeli Or Sasson after their bout.

In October 2019 Iran’s judokas were banned indefinitely from international competitions until it could provide strong guarantees that its athletes would be allowed to face Israelis.

The ban followed a protective suspension imposed on the Iran Judo Federation in September 2019 for putting pressure on one of its fighters to withdraw from the world judo championships to avoid having to face an Israeli opponent.

Reporting by Karolos Grohmann, editing by Pritha Sarkar