Hockey legend Irbe joins debate on Russian athletes at Olympics

Hockey legend Artūrs Irbe is the latest Latvian voice to enter the debate on whether Russian and Belarusian athletes should be allowed to participate in Olympic competition while the war in Ukraine continues.

Ice hockey great and two-time Olympian Irbe told LTV that the efforts of the International Olympic Comittee (IOC) to bring athletes from the aggressor countries back into international competition show that money speaks louder than principles. Although he has friends and acquaintances in Russian sports, made over a lengthy career, Irbe admitted that he does not want to talk to them about the current situation.

"A good friend and acquaintance of mine, Alexander Ovechkin, said at the beginning of the war - Putin is my president. How can I condemn [the war]? Well, that's the attitude in that country," said Irbe. "And many people regret what they have said, how they have behaved. But what is going on in their hearts and what are they thinking? I am not going to judge whether they cannot be allowed to play sports, I think, in a neutral way, individuals probably cannot be banned. But the country they represent – even if supposedly under a neutral flag – they represent their country and everyone knows it."

Having spent most of his life in sports, Irbe is not surprised by the IOC, because he believes that the door to Russia has always been open.

"There, money speaks much louder in sports than achievements and goals... We see it in the scandal with the Russian Anti-Doping Agency – pretending to be fighting [doping], but allowing them back," said Irbe. "How can you talk about returning to the Olympics if the anti-doping case is not yet closed?"

Irbe believes that the IOC will have to decide whether it will prefer Russia, Belarus, and most Asian and African countries, France and maybe Germany to participate in the Olympics at the expense of big-hitters such as the United States and United Kingdom. 

"Will they [the IOC] be interested in such an Olympics without the sponsors [from the] other countries? Everything will depend on the position of the other countries. Well, if we, Latvia, take a stand against it and threaten [a boycott] together with Estonians, Lithuanians, Poles, Ukrainians, I don't know what else can be added to that group now... We will be able to boycott and the Olympics will take place. The Americans, the English must also participate there [in the boycott], and then others will also join in. I think [French President Emmanuel] Macron will not be happy about the Olympics with just some African and Asian countries, France and Russia."

The Olympic Games will be held in France in the summer of 2024, and France is preparing in full swing.

Irbe believes that it is now necessary to see what the athletes will decide for themselves, because they have the most power.

"In the end, I can say from my own experience... In the NHL, I have experienced both a strike and a lockout twice and was quite involved. The trump card of the officials - in this case the league management - was: well, you won't play? We will take others instead of you. There is no substitute for the best athletes. There simply isn't. No one will go to watch second-rate sports," emphasized Irbe. "I can say from my experience that it doesn't work like that. It's the same in this case, because officials can be changed. Coaches can be changed... Athletes cannot be replaced. They are simply the best. And everything is in the hands of the athletes."

Irbe is surprised that the IOC is trying to open the door to the Olympic start for Russian athletes so early.

"My personal opinion would be – I already expressed this at the beginning of the war – that Russia should be excluded from the Olympic Games for several cycles. I might not be so harsh about Belarus, but they should definitely skip maybe one cycle," Irbe said. "But the Russians need to make reparations, admit their guilt, they need to be neutralized, and then we can talk about returning to sport."

According to Irbe, the IOC needs Russian money, not athletes.

"The Olympics can be held very successfully without Russian athletes. We saw that in 1984 - the Olympics were very well staged in Los Angeles. A much stronger lineup than in the Moscow Olympics. I remember those times and even at the Moscow Olympics I was there myself and watched the competition," said Irbe.

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