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Paris marks 1-year countdown to war-clouded Olympic Games

Olympic president invokes John Lennon’s memory as Russia, Belarus not invited
International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach delivers his speech during IOC invitation ceremony, exactly one year for the 2024 Olympics, Wednesday, July 26, 2023 in Saint-Denis, outside Paris. (AP Photo/Aurelien Morissard)

The president of the International Olympic Committee on Wednesday formally invited the world’s nations but not Russia or its military ally Belarus to gather in one year in Paris for the Olympics — launching the final countdown to the 2024 Games against the backdrop of war in Ukraine.

IOC president Thomas Bach accompanied his invite with a plea for togetherness and invoked the memory of John Lennon as he argued that “our fragile world, with conflicts, divisions and wars rising,” needs the Olympics’ “unifying power more than ever.”

“The Olympic Games must always build bridges. The Olympic Games must never erect walls. Imagine. You may say we are dreamers. We are not the only ones,” Bach said, borrowing from Lennon’s famous peace anthem, “Imagine.”

Bach has heaped praise on Paris’ preparations this week as the French capital marked the year-to-go milestone to the opening ceremony on July 26, 2024.

“Paris is maybe at this stage the best-prepared city ever,” Bach said.

Without the usual worries about whether Olympic venues will be ready, the biggest unknown this time is whether Bach and the IOC will let athletes from Russia and Belarus compete.

In Paris this week, the IOC president has not deviated from his line that there may be a pathway for some of them to compete as “neutral athletes,” without their countries’ flags, names or colors, but that the final decision will come later.

“There’s still one year to go,” Bach said Wednesday. “We have not taken any decision about the participation of individual neutral athletes yet.”

The sending out of formal invites for national Olympic committees and their best athletes to take part in the July 26 to Aug. 11 Olympics is an IOC tradition to mark the year-to-go milestone of both Summer and Winter Games. This time, 203 NOCs are getting them. Some picked up their invites from Bach in person Wednesday at a ceremony at the Paris Games headquarters. An invite also went to the IOC’s team of refugee athletes.

Guatemala joined Russia and Belarus on the list of NOCs that aren’t invited. Guatemala is suspended from the Olympic movement because of alleged government interference with the independence of its NOC.

Other year-to-go events this week have been less formal than the ceremony where Bach spoke about Olympic values and where a violinist played France’s national anthem and Lennon’s “Imagine.”

On a visit to the Olympic village that will house many of the 10,500 Olympians and 4,400 Paralympic athletes, Bach got to test one of the cardboard beds they’ll sleep on. Cardboard beds were also used at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games in 2021 and became something of a hit when athletes posted videos of themselves testing their durability.

“I can assure them that they will sleep very well in these beds,” Bach said.

He also rubbed shoulders with eight-time gold-medal winner Usain Bolt, who was the star guest on a festive trip for Olympic officials and French athletes on the River Seine. The boat trip Tuesday to the foot of the Eiffel Tower offered a small foretaste of the unprecedented waterborne opening ceremony that Paris is planning for its Games.

Paris organizers this week also unveiled the design of the sleek silver-colored torch that will be used to carry the Olympic flame around France and on its final leg at the July 26 opening.

And they snagged a sponsorship deal with the world’s biggest luxury group, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

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