“I fully accept that politics should stay out of the sport,” said Ilia Kovtun from Ukraine at the World Gymnastics Championships in Liverpool, where he will compete in the all-around final this Friday. The following had previously happened: In podium practice, Ilia Kovtun wore a yellow and turquoise T-shirt with the inscription “No war”.
Although no spectators are allowed to participate in this prescribed exercise run on the original equipment in the competition hall, the judges and press representatives and photographers are also allowed to take a picture. The photo with the t-shirt quickly made the rounds. Then, Kovtun says, representatives of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) “politely asked him not to wear the T-shirt again.”
He complied with this request, not least to rule out that his personal action would have negative consequences for his team. When asked whether he had checked beforehand whether his appearance could result in any sanctions according to the regulations, he laughs: “Njet!” explicitly forbidden political statements during the competition – hurt: “Although we agree with the message, we do not want to experience something like this again. We spoke to the head of delegation to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
In 2021, Ilia Kovtun won bronze at the European and World Championships, with the Ukrainian team he finished seventh in the Olympic team finals. In Liverpool, the team finished 21st out of 24. The all-around is the only final for Kovtun. Nevertheless, he was satisfied: “Under the given circumstances, it was what we could count on.” The team has been training in Croatia for the past four months, before that for a while in Ferrara, Italy. Kovtun started for Monaco in the French league.
He has not been at home in Cherkasy, central Ukraine, since February 24. He experienced the outbreak of war in Cottbus, at the World Cup. He turned 19 in August and was Vice European Champion on parallel bars in Munich. Teammate Igor Radivilov from Mariupol recently trained mainly in Cottbus, where he has been part of the Bundesliga team for years.
Activists from Russia and Belarus are not at the start in Liverpool. Whether they are missing from a sporting point of view is a question of perspective. FIG President and IOC member Morinari Watanabe made a statement on the “Russian-Ukrainian matter” at the opening press conference: “I miss the Russian and Belarusian gymnasts who are not here. The FIG is not allowed to let them start, we have to observe the IOC rules.” The FIG “massively supported” the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation, with a total of 400,000 Swiss francs. “To ensure that the Russian and Belarusian gymnasts are back with us soon, coordination is required.”
The question of whether Russia – team Olympic champions for men and women in Tokyo in 2021 – will be there in Paris 2024 or at the decisive qualifying World Cup next year; Whether a ‘Lex Russia’ is already being worked on is a matter of debate in many places in Liverpool. DTB President Alfons Hölzl “can’t imagine at the moment that Russia will actually take part in the Olympic Games”. There are also no Russian or Belarusian FIG officials or judges at the start in Liverpool, Great Britain is currently denying them a visa. The exception is Vice President Nellie Kim, officially from Belarus but based in the United States for decades.
Congress moved to Istanbul
This will be different next week at the FIG Congress; after all, Morinari Watanabe was able to see to that. After the Norwegian association, the original organizer of the congress, announced that they would not allow representatives from Russia and Belarus, the congress was relocated to Istanbul without further ado. Watanabe said in September the officials – around 450 participants from 150 countries are expected – were “representatives of sport” and not “MPs of their countries”. Norway was the first association to opt for a boycott of the congress, followed by Ukraine, Estonia, Poland and finally Italy.
Alfons Hölzl says he has “respect and admiration” for those countries that have decided to boycott. For its part, the DTB “decided to” take part in the congress: “Because I think it’s important right now to also contribute our view of the overall situation politically.” However, his personal attitude is different from that of the FIG President: “No athletes and no officials”, but you can currently see that “that is not a majority”. Hölzl finds it “completely understandable” that the Ukrainian association sees itself forced to give up under these circumstances.
The German active spokesman Lukas Dauser also finds it “correct that no Russian gymnasts are currently admitted” and accordingly “extremely contradictory” that Russian officials are now traveling to the congress. Since then, he has also had more personal contact with Igor Radivilov, who was last at the training camp in Kienbaum. They are both in a World Cup final on Sunday. Above all, Ilia Kovtun wants to “make his compatriots happy” with his all-around competition, “maybe give them some hope” – without a T-shirt, with a good competition or maybe even a medal.