On a November day in the bowels of the WiZink Center in Madrid nearly three years ago, I remember having an extensive phone call with a senior International Olympic Committee (IOC) official to discuss Kosovo.

The country had been barred from competing under their own flag at the World Karate Championships in the Spanish capital as Spain, like several other nations, does not recognise Kosovo as a state.

Kosovo was only able to participate at the Championships after a last-minute agreement was reached with the Spanish Government and organisers, a stipulation of which was that the nation take part under the World Karate Federation’s flag and initials.

For Kosovo, being there was better than nothing, even if it meant sacrificing their treasured national symbols.

This came only a few months after Kosovo’s karate team was twice prevented from crossing the border into Serbia to compete at the European Championships in Novi Sad.

That scandal prompted an intervention from the IOC, which warned all sports bodies to “carefully consider” awarding events to countries such as Serbia and Kosovo to avoid a repeat of the karate situation.

Kosovo have been prevented from competing at the AIBA World Boxing Championships in Belgrade ©Getty Images
Kosovo have been prevented from competing at the AIBA World Boxing Championships in Belgrade ©Getty Images

Fast forward 36 months and little appears to have been done to prevent such an obvious and blatant politicisation of sport, which reared its ugly head once again as Kosovan athletes were barred from entering Serbia to compete at the ongoing International Boxing Association (AIBA) Men’s World Championships in Belgrade.

Despite attempts from the IOC and AIBA, Kosovo’s boxing squad was stopped at the border and turned away on three separate occasions. They never made it into Serbia and were forced to withdraw from the Championships.

A similar agreement to the World Karate Championships had been in place for the event, where Kosovo’s athletes would compete under the AIBA flag. Serbia could not even allow that to happen.

It is fundamentally wrong that athletes should be forced to miss a sports competition for political reasons. It is even worse that pretty much everyone, including AIBA and the IOC, saw this coming and did little to stop it.

The IOC left everyone in no doubt as to who it thought was to blame: AIBA. In a statement, the IOC said boxing’s embattled governing body “has not applied the necessary due diligence before allocating this tournament to Belgrade, despite the fact that the IOC has repeatedly advised the International Federations of the necessity of such due diligence”.

AIBA, which is fighting to save its Olympic future and be reinstated by the IOC in time to run the boxing event at Paris 2024, confirmed Serbian organisers had broken the hosting agreement.

The IOC as far back as 2018 warned countries to carefully consider awarding events to nations such as Serbia ©Getty Images
The IOC as far back as 2018 warned countries to carefully consider awarding events to nations such as Serbia ©Getty Images

As is often the case in these scenarios, Serbia had vowed to allow Kosovan athletes to participate and provided AIBA with assurances that there would not be any issues.

Yet no-one would have been surprised to see Serbia renege on its promise.

Kosovan officials held a series of meetings with the IOC on the sidelines of the Association of National Olympic Committees General Assembly in Crete this week in an attempt to find a solution.

Nenad Lalovic, the Serbian who has become one of IOC President Thomas Bach’s go-to people in these situations, was among those drafted in to help.

Lalovic, the IOC and AIBA’s effort proved to be in vain as, sadly for Kosovo, it could not be resolved and they were forced to return home without having participated at the event.

“Kosovo boxing team has been a victim of a political agenda in Serbia, and the case has been used for purposes not connected to sport or the rules of the fair play,” said Kosovo Olympic Committee President Ismet Krasniqi. Few, except the Serbian Government, would disagree.

What should follow is some form of sanctions being applied to Serbia, but more broadly sport – including organisations like the IOC – simply has to do more.

While sports bodies frequently insist it is not in their remit to dictate policy to countries, which is a valid point, they nevertheless have certain powers, such as banning countries who discriminate against athletes from hosting major events.

They can also suspend the offending nations from their respective sport, which directly puts pressure on the Government to end its politically-charged policies.

Sport, as we are often told, is a vehicle for good and a vehicle for change. The time for sport to stop paying lip-service to this motto is long overdue.

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A week has passed since the Presidential election at the European Shooting Confederation (ESC).

In normal times, it is feasible the vote would have passed with little traction outside of the world of Olympic shooting.

But the fact the winner of the election, Russia’s Alexander Ratner, is also the secretary general of the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) has caught the attention of the IOC.

Whatever Ratner, the ISSF and its President Vladimir Lisin have to say, there is an obvious conflict here. You do not need to be a professor of governance to realise that.

Ratner is now the number one in Europe and the number two at the worldwide governing body. There is wearing too many hats, and then there is wearing clearly conflicting hats.

The IOC declined to comment on the election but said it “is confident that the newly elected ESC President will take the appropriate steps to avoid a situation that could lead to any conflict of interest”.

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