LAUSANNE, Switzerland -- Russian players are set to return to table tennis events after the sport's governing body on Thursday followed the International Olympic Committee's advice to let them compete as neutrals.
The decision by the International Table Tennis Federation paves the way for players from Russia and its ally Belarus to end a year-long exclusion from competitions during Russia's war in Ukraine. They could resume competing from May at the earliest "under strict conditions of neutrality" and can't enter the world championships in late May because they have missed the qualification events, the ITTF said.
Table tennis is following a framework presented by the IOC on Tuesday which also recommended excluding any Russians and Belarusians who are contracted to the military, and allowing them to only take part as individuals, not teams. The ITTF said it would create its own guidelines drawing on the IOC recommendations but didn't commit to any specific measures.
The ITTF justified its decision by the example of "ping-pong diplomacy," when American table tennis players traveled to China in 1971 to play a series of exhibition games which helped thaw relations between the two countries during the Cold War.
"Table tennis has a long history of bringing people together even when political ties have been tenuous," the ITTF said. "It can build bridges, leading to better understanding among peoples, and open the door for peacebuilding in ways that exclusion and division cannot."
Table tennis is the first sport to commit to readmitting Russians and Belarusians since the IOC published its guidelines. Two other Olympic sports, judo and fencing, had committed to doing so earlier in 2023 but haven't held any competitions this year with Russian or Belarusian athletes.
Tennis and cycling allow individual Russians and Belarusians to compete in tour events but not in national team competitions.