London | Svitolina returns to Odesa while calling for total ban of Russian and Belarusian athletes in sport

Elena Svitolina briefly returned home to Odesa to take part in a charity run for Ukraine that took place in the city where her grandmother lives, and shared glimpses of their reunion on social media.

The war is still there. The decision should not be any different. I hope they will do the same thing and keep the ban in place. I don’t think it should change. There are still people suffering and still Russian soldiers killing innocent Ukrainians. Elina Svitolina

The former World No 3 has spent most of the Ukraine war outside of her country, but has actively campaigned in support of those who are suffering there.

She became a mother last October, and has residences in Monte Carlo and London with her husband Gael Monfils, but has not played a competitive match since March last year, saying it was ‘impossible to perform’ while her country was under attack.

While she was born in Odesa, she had moved her training base to Kharkiv, one of the largest cities in the country, but a few members of her family, including her grandmother Tamara, still reside in Odesa.

On Sunday, Svitolina took to Instagram to share a video of her reunion with her grandmother in Odesa via a Tiktok video.

“When in Odesa,” wrote the 28-year-old on her Instagram post with multiple ‘heart’ emojis.

Svitolina has rallied relentlessly to gather support for the Ukrainian cause, hosting charity events and promoting words of peace and harmony at international forums, such as at the recent World Economic Summit in Davos last month.

She is an ambassador of UNITED 24, an organisation established by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to channel donations for the Ukrainian war effort.

She has been vocal against the Russian invasion of Ukraine since the beginning, and has questioned the stance of the WTA and the ATP on continuing to let players from Russia and Belarus compete in international tournaments under a neutral banner, while the war still rages.


Elina Svitolina was a a bronze medalist at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and is calling for a complete ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes because of the on-going war in Ukraine

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Last week she called for an absolute ban on Russian and Belarusian players across all tennis tournaments, especially at Wimbledon and the Paris 2024 Olympics.

Players from the two allied countries have been allowed to compete under a neutral flag but are barred from international team competitions such as the Davis Cup and the Billie Jean King Cup, although the All England Club refused to accept entries from them at Wimbledon last year.

Svitolina has now raised questions about their privilege to lead unrestrained careers while their country’s regimes continue to destroy Ukrainian lives.

Her latest comments followed the IOC’s decision to ‘explore a pathway’ for athletes from the two nations to return to the Olympics as neutrals.

“The Olympics are the biggest dream and ultimate privilege for athletes,” Svitolina wrote on Twitter. “They are the largest platform for inclusion and diversity in sports, capturing the attention of the world.

“With this in mind we must stick to banning Russian and Belarusian athletes, sending a strong message worldwide, that we are united in the sanctions imposed against Russia and Belarus and that there are consequences for the heinous acts of their governments; their lives cannot continue as normal and the world, nor the Russian or Belarusian people can be ignorant of the atrocities they are committing in Ukraine.”

While the IOC claims that the majority of the Olympic Movement are backing their decision, some nations have threatened to boycott the Games in the French capital if the two nations are allowed to compete.


Australian Open Tournament Director Craig Tiley has called for better support of Ukrainian players

© Graham Denholm/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Australian Open Tournament Director Craig Tiley has called on tennis and other sports to do more to support Ukrainian athletes.

The AO was at the centre of debate as organisers introduced a ban on Russian flags at Melbourne Park after some were on display during matches.

“I would like the tennis world to support the Ukrainian athletes more, because I spend a lot of time with the Ukrainian athletes and I actually learned a lot about their situation as well,” Tiley told ABC Radio. “And the biggest thing is that no Ukrainian can go home.

“They’ve got no home to go to, so when they’re travelling around the world to play tennis, they just have to go to the next city to play tennis.

“And the other athletes, we can all go home – so I think we’ve got to all be more conscious of that and I would like the tennis world and maybe other sports, every week where there is a Ukrainian athlete, that tournament should support that athlete financially all the way through until the next week.

“I think that would be a really great thing for sport to do, and I would be encouraging our sport to do it – we did it for the three weeks they were here.”

Although he wants to do more to help Ukrainians, Tiley is adamant that Russian athletes should not be ignored.

“We don’t support banning Russian athletes, they competed as individual competitors, but we do support them not being able to compete as part of a Russian team,” Tiley continued. “We need to be conscious that the Russian players are also struggling with this situation, they just happen to be from that country.

“Everyone I’ve spoken to are against the war, you saw Andrey Rublev had written on the camera lens ‘No war’ [at a tournament in Dubai].

“They all have family back in Russia so it’s always dangerous for them to come out, and they have, and be outspoken against the war, because I’m sure it puts their families at risk as well, so their mental health and wellbeing also needs to be monitored.

“Because at the end of the day, they are just out here competing as tennis players, and they haven’t been any part of this terrible situation.”


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Elina Svitolina campaigned for support at the World Economic Summit in Davos last month

Instagram

Elsewhere, Zelenskyy invited IOC President Thomas Bach to the war-torn city of Bakhmut to ‘see with his own eyes that neutrality does not exist’ after opening the door for Russian and Belarusian athletes to potentially return to the global stage.

It was in Bakhmut that 25-year old Ukrainian figure skater Dymtro Sharpar was recently killed during fighting there.

By early last month, only between 7,000 to 15,000 of Bakhmut’s pre-war population of 80,000 remained in the city and, while the number of casualties is not known, it has been estimated that those killed in fighting could run into the thousands.

The IOC had confirmed a pathway for the participation of athletes from the two nations should be ‘further explored’ after receiving support in recent consultation calls.

The organisation warned that this would be under ‘strict conditions’ of neutrality, and only for athletes who ‘fully respect the Olympic Charter’, with sanctions including a ban on Russian and Belarusian national symbols remaining in place.

The approach was defended by Bach, who insisted that it ‘does not correspond to the values and the mission of the Olympic Charter to exclude athletes of their passport’ in an interview with the German publication Der Spiegel.

Bach also said that a possible boycott of Paris 2024 by Ukraine due to Russian participation was ‘not in line with our mission’.

“We know the view of Ukraine, which not only wants to isolate Russia as a state but also wants to isolate all Russians completely,” said Bach who insisted that the return of Russian and Belarusian athletes was still ‘under consideration’.

The European Olympic Committee has also released a statement saying that it ‘does not feel athletes should be prevented from competing solely on the basis of which passport they hold’.


The All England Club has a difficult decision to make on whether to uphold or lift its ban on Russian and Belarusian players at Wimbledon this year

© Alex Davidson/Getty Images

As for Wimbledon, Svitolina has called on the Club to maintain its ban on Russian and Belarusian players amid the continuing war being waged by Russia in Ukraine and Belarus’ support for Vladimir Putin’s forces.

The Club and the LTA were handed fines from both the ATP and WTA Tours, and both player bodies stripped the 2022 edition of The Championships of rankings points.

A decision is said to be forthcoming in April, and it is thought that, despite the sanctions and warnings from the ATP and WTA Tours, Wimbledon would still receive considerable support if it held a hard line on maintaining the ban.

“The war is still there,” Svitolina told BBC Sport. “The decision should not be any different.

“I hope they will do the same thing and keep the ban in place. I don’t think it should change. There are still people suffering and still Russian soldiers killing innocent Ukrainians.”

Svitolina believes that sanctions against ordinary Russians and Belarusians would help increase pressure to end the war.

“I see a lot of comments that sport should be out of politics but Russian sport is a big part of their politics,” she said. “Hopefully we don’t have to make this [boycott] decision because this would be sending a wrong message.

“Why is it different? We have to sanction Russian and Belarusian people in general because of what they governments are doing.

“This is my view. I have nothing against particular athletes. But how else can we stop this war?

“We should sanction the people from Russia and Belarusian as much as possible because their governments are doing these severe things in Ukraine. The sanctions will stop these governments doing what they are doing.

“The big cities have been destroyed and that is very sad to see.

“When I speak to my friends there they are not thinking about the sad moments or what it was before, they are only thinking about how they can win, beat the enemy and looking to the future how we can rebuild cities and the country.

“My grandma lives on the 13th floor of an apartment block and she has to walk up the stairs every day because she is scared to get stuck in the elevator.

“Any time of the day electricity can go off and you be trapped in this elevator for hours. It is extremely tough for older people. There are lots of day-to-day issues that everyone is trying to manage in a good spirit.

“The war is still in the country and we have to keep our spirits up for fighting the enemy and to find this strong spirit to continue every day in this horror.”


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