FIG President Morinari Watanabe was thanked for his visit to Ukraine's capital Kyiv ©Office of the President of Ukraine

International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) President and International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Morinari Watanabe has visited Ukraine's capital Kyiv, where Government officials urged him to use his influence to block Russian and Belarusian athletes from next year's Olympics in Paris.

Watanabe met with the head of Ukraine's Presidential Office Andriy Yermak and Sports Minister and National Olympic Committee President Vadym Gutzeit after attending the funeral of legendary rhythmic gymnastics coach Albina Deriugina, who had died last Wednesday (March 29) at the age of 91.

The Commissioner of the President of Ukraine for children's rights and rehabilitation Daria Gerasymchuk, Tetiana Kharko, the sister of the acting commander of the 36th marine brigade Serhii Volynsky, and Sydney 2000 Olympic triple jump bronze medallist Olena Hovorova were also in attendance at the meeting.

Yermak offered thanks to Watanabe on behalf of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and said he hoped the FIG President would take information from the meeting into account and "understand our pain".

He also expressed his gratitude for the FIG's support for Ukrainian gymnastics.

Head of Ukraine's Presidential Office Andriy Yermak, left, told FIG President Morinari Watanabe, right, sporting sanctions are
Head of Ukraine's Presidential Office Andriy Yermak, left, told FIG President Morinari Watanabe, right, sporting sanctions are "the best non-lethal way of influence" ©Office of the President of Ukraine

During the meeting, Ukrainian officials argued that Russia is using athletes to promote aggression, and called on Watanabe to support their exclusion from Paris 2024.

Gerasymchuk shared the story of young Ukrainian gymnast Alexandra Pascal, who lost her leg in a Russian rocket attack.

Yermak claimed that 90 per cent of Russian representatives in gymnastics are members of the CSKA club representing the military, and argued in favour of blocking their participation.

"We know that sanctions are the best non-lethal way of influence," he said.

"Therefore, Ukraine emphasises the need to extend sanctions.

"And one of their types is not to give Russian and Belarusian athletes the opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games and other international competitions."

Gutzeit claimed that, so far, 262 Ukrainian athletes with Olympic ambitions had been killed during the war, and 363 sports facilities had been destroyed.

He insisted "it is very important for us that there are no athletes from Russia at sports competitions and the Olympic Games".

The IOC earlier this week allowed Russian and Belarusian athletes to return to international sport as individual neutrals, provided they do not support the invasion of Ukraine and are not affiliated to the military.

It stressed a final decision had not yet been taken on Paris 2024, although Ukraine insisted it would boycott qualifiers where Russian and Belarusian athletes are present.

Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak was punished by the FIG for wearing the pro-war
Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak was punished by the FIG for wearing the pro-war "Z" competing as a neutral in March last year ©YouTube

The FIG has banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from its competitions since March last year, although this was after gymnasts had been able to compete as neutrals at an Artistic Gymnastics World Cup in Doha, where Ivan Kuliak wore the "Z" symbol to show his support for the invasion of Ukraine.

Kuliak was banned from FIG competitions until May of this year for this actions, although has been unable to compete at its events anyway.

The FIG has yet to comment on the IOC's updated recommendations.

Watanabe was quoted by the Ukrainian Presidential office supporting punishment for athletes supporting the war.

"I feel your pain," he said.

"Those who support the war deserve severe punishment."

A group of seven European countries, including Ukraine boycotted last year's FIG Congress, which was moved from Sandefjord in Norway to Istanbul in Turkey due to the original host's refusal to welcome delegates from Russia and Belarus.

Watanabe defended the invitation of Russian and Belarusian officials, insisting "we have a duty to share our opinions" and arguing "unnecessary punishments create new hatred".

He also insisted at the Congress that the war had not been started by the Russian people.

Watanabe was first elected as FIG President in 2016 and has been an IOC member since 2018.