By Andrius Sytas and Marek Strzelecki
VILNIUS (Reuters) -Poland believes it will be possible to build a coalition of some 40 countries, including the U.S., Britain and Canada, by Feb. 10 supporting the call to block Russian and Belarusian athletes from the 2024 Olympics, a Polish minister said on Thursday.
The Baltic nations and Poland earlier Thursday called on international sports bodies to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing in the Olympics and other events while the war in Ukraine continues.
"I'm convinced that a meeting that is planned for Feb. 10 will reach a conclusion of over 30 or maybe 40 sports ministers including those from the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia and Japan to decisively reject the idea to allow athletes from Russia and Belarus to take part in the Games," Poland's Sport and Tourism Minister Kamil Bortniczuk told Reuters.
"Considering this I don't think we will face tough decisions before the Olympics and, if we were to boycott the Games, the coalition we will be a part of will be broad enough to make holding the Games pointless."
The International Olympic Committee announced last week that athletes from the two countries, banned from competing in Europe, might be allowed to earn slots for the Paris 2024 Games through Asian qualifying, although the IOC later said it was standing by sanctions imposed against Russia and Belarus.
"Any effort by the International Olympic Committee to bring back Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete, even under a neutral flag, should be rejected," sports ministers from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland said in a statement on Thursday.
"Efforts to return Russian and Belarusian athletes to international sports competitions under the veil of neutrality legitimize political decisions and widespread propaganda of these countries," it added.
They called on "all international sports organizations and federations" to remove Russian and Belarusian athletes from international competitions until the war ends.
The United States supports suspending Russian and Belarusian sport governing bodies from international sports organisations and is encouraging organisations to suspend the broadcasting of sports competitions into both countries, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.
If athletes were permitted to participate in events such as the Olympics, "it should be absolutely clear that they are not representing the Russian or Belarusian states," she said, adding that their flags, emblems and anthems should also be prohibited.
The three Baltic states and Poland, members of the European Union and NATO which border Russia and Belarus, have been strong supporters of Ukraine and among the first to send weapons following Moscow's invasion almost a year ago.
Russia says it is defending its own security and denies accusations of widespread atrocities in Ukraine.
Latvia joined Kyiv on Wednesday in threatening to boycott the 2024 Olympics and qualifiers if Russian and Belarusian athletes are included while the war continues in Ukraine.
Athletes from Russia and its neighbour Belarus, which aided Moscow's invasion of Ukraine a year ago, have been banned from many international competitions since.
However last week, the IOC said the Olympic Council of Asia had offered Russian and Belarusian athletes the chance to compete in Asia, drawing an outcry from Kyiv which has called for Russian sportspeople to be banned over Russia's invasion.
'TERROR IS SOMEHOW ACCEPTABLE'
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said allowing Russia to compete at the 2024 Paris Games would be tantamount to showing that "terror is somehow acceptable".
Organisers of next year's summer Olympics in Paris have, however, insisted they would abide by the IOC's decision on Russian and Belarusian participation.
Paris 2024 told Reuters in a statement on Wednesday that their hands were tied on who could qualify for the Summer 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)," Paris 2024 said, stressing that the IOC had taken several measures against Russia and Belarus.
Russians have competed as neutrals with no flag or anthem in the past three Olympics as punishment for state-backed doping.
The Paris Olympics will be held from July 26-Aug. 11 next year and the Paralympics from Aug. 28-Sept. 8.
(Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington; editing by Terje Solsvik and Ken Ferris)