Latvia has threatened to boycott next year's Paris Olympics if Russian athletes are allowed to take part during the war in Ukraine and is calling on other countries to form a coalition to pressure international sports bodies.
The Latvian Olympic Committee is the first national Olympic body other than Ukraine that has threatened to boycott the Games rather than compete against Russia.
It marks a rare challenge from within the sports world to the International Olympic Committee, which wants to let competitors from Russia and its ally Belarus take part as "neutral athletes." The national Olympic committees that send teams have mostly stayed quiet or backed the IOC, even as politicians in many European countries have said Russia shouldn't return to competition.
"For as long as there is an ongoing war in Ukraine, participation of the Russian and Belarusian athletes in the Olympic Games under any flag is unacceptable," Latvian National Olympic Committee president Žoržs Tikmers said in a statement Wednesday.
A boycott could start soon. Tikmers said Monday that Latvia would not send a team to the Paris Olympics if they were to take place right now with Russian or Belarusian involvement. He broadened that position Wednesday by saying Latvia should boycott Olympic qualifying competitions, which are already underway in some sports, if Russians or Belarusians are allowed in.
"NOC Latvia deems unacceptable for Latvian teams and individual athletes to participate in such international sports competitions that have not expelled Russian and Belarusian athletes from the participation, including the Olympic qualifications competitions," he said.
Latvia called on international sports bodies and countries, including Britain, France and Canada, to speak out against Russia's involvement and stop Russia and Belarus from gaining "soft power" through sports.
Jurgita Šiugždinienė, Lithuania's minister of education, science and sport, also plans to discuss the issue with her Latvian and Estonian counterparts Thursday and is inviting other countries to join a potential appeal against Russian and Belarusian participation.
Paris 2024 organizers have insisted they would abide by the IOC's decision on Russian and Belarusian athletes' participation in the Games.
"With regard to the presence of Russian and Belarusian athletes at the Paris 2024 Games, it should be recalled that the qualification system is determined by the international federations, the IOC and the IPC [International Paralympic Committee]," Games organizers said in a statement to Reuters on Wednesday. "Our wish is that the Olympic movement, the Paralympic movement and the athletes experience the Paris 2024 Games in a spirit of peace, respecting the values of fraternity and solidarity."
There was no immediate response from the IOC.
Tikmers was a silver medalist in rowing for the Soviet Union at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which numerous countries, including the United States, boycotted in protest after Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan.
Latvia, which borders Russia and regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has been a strong supporter of Ukraine. Latvia is the defending Olympic champion in men's 3-on-3 basketball after beating the Russian team in the gold-medal game in Tokyo in 2021.
Ukraine is steadfastly opposed to letting Russians compete. Any neutral flag for Russia would be "stained with blood," President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said last week. The Ukrainian National Olympic Committee has threatened to boycott and is due to hold talks Friday on the issue. Ukraine boycotted some sports competitions, including Olympic judo qualifiers, last year when Russians competed.
Other national Olympic sports bodies, including the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, back the IOC efforts to find a path for Russians to compete. The IOC is pushing sports federations to allow any Russians or Belarusians who have not been "actively supporting the war in Ukraine" to compete and argues that it would be discriminatory to ban athletes based on their citizenship alone.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.