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World Aquatics sets criteria for athletes from Russia, Belarus to return as neutrals

Evgeny Rylov

FUKUOKA, JAPAN - JULY 25: A general view of the Men’s 200m Butterfly Semifinal on day three of the Fukuoka 2023 World Aquatics Championships at Marine Messe Fukuoka Hall A on July 25, 2023 in Fukuoka, Japan. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

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Swimmers and divers from Russia and Belarus can return to international competition as individual neutral athletes, should they apply for that status and if they meet specific criteria, including not supporting the war in Ukraine.

World Aquatics, which has banned athletes from Russia and Belarus from its competitions since March 2022, on Monday outlined how those swimmers and divers can return. The criteria is here.

“The World Aquatics Bureau recognizes the dedication, commitment, and talent of athletes, regardless of their nationality,” World Aquatics President Husain Al Musallam said in a press release. “Despite the challenges we face on the international stage, we acknowledge our responsibility to foster a competitive, fair, and inclusive environment for every competitor.”

In line with IOC recommendations from this past March, athletes must not have shown support for the war in Ukraine and not have a contract with the Russian or Belarusian military or other national security agency.

“Any form of verbal, non-verbal or written expression, explicit or implicit, at any time since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, in particular public statements, including those made in social media, participation in pro-war demonstrations or events, and the wearing of any symbol in support of the war in Ukraine, for example the “Z” symbol, are considered to be acts of support for the war in Ukraine,” according to World Aquatics.

Athletes who apply to return, and are approved by the Aquatics Integrity Unit, can compete strictly in individual events. That means that groups of athletes from Russia and Belarus remain ineligible for swimming relays, synchronized diving events, every artistic swimming event that’s on the Olympic program and all water polo competitions.

The approved neutral athletes can compete in “plain white” uniforms and without their national flags, anthems or symbols.

Other international sports federations previously lifted bans on athletes from Russia and Belarus, instituting similar criteria.

No more than one athlete per event from Russia and one from Belarus can compete at a World Aquatics competition, such as a World Cup or World Championships.

World Aquatics did not specify a return date or competition. A swimming World Cup series in Europe starts in October, though it’s more likely that a return to major competition would not happen until the next World Championships in February in Doha, a World Aquatics spokesperson said.

World Aquatics said that surveys showed that 67 percent of international athletes support the return of individual athletes from Russia and Belarus as neutrals if they meet the criteria.

Qualifying for swimming and diving for the 2024 Paris Olympics is still open. The IOC has said its decision on the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus for the Games, which has not yet been made, will not be bound by qualifying results.

Athletes from Russia won five swimming medals at the Tokyo Games, including Yevgeny Rylov sweeping the men’s backstrokes golds. They competed under the Russian Olympic Committee name rather than Russia due to the nation’s doping violations.

Speedo ended its sponsorship of Rylov after he appeared at a pro-war rally in March 2022.