KYIV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian tennis player and Olympic bronze medalist Elina Svitolina pushed for a total ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes from the 2024 Paris Games in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Svitolina, who won her bronze medal in singles at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, is visiting Ukraine for the first time since Russia invaded the country last year. She is the latest to call for a complete ban on athletes from Russia and Belarus because of the war.
"It's going to be very sad, and the wrong message would be sent to the world if Olympics going to stay with the decision to put them [Russia and Belarus] under a neutral flag," Svitolina said in the interview. "I don't think this is the right decision."
Svitolina, who had a baby with husband Gael Monfils in October, said sports and politics in Russia are inseparable.
"You can see that in Russia, sports are connected to the government," Svitolina said.
On Friday, Ukraine's sports minister renewed a threat to boycott the Paris Olympics if Russia and Belarus are allowed to compete and said Kyiv would lobby other nations to join.
A Ukrainian Olympic Committee meeting did not commit to a boycott but approved plans to try to persuade international sports officials in the next two months -- including a discussion of a possible boycott. The leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania also urged the International Olympic Committee to ban Russia and said a boycott was a possibility.
Speakers at the Ukrainian Olympic Committee's meeting raised concerns about Russia using the Paris Games for propaganda and noted the close ties between some athletes and the Russian military.
"Boycott would be one of the options because obviously what Russian army is doing to Ukrainian people, to Ukraine, it's a horrible thing for us," Svitolina said. "I cannot imagine going to the Olympics like nothing is happening to Ukraine."
Svitolina said the decision to boycott should be discussed with the country's Olympic committee with input from every Ukrainian athlete involved. She, however, didn't hesitate to say what she thought was the right thing to do.
"Our men and women are at the front line right now fighting Russian soldiers and dying for our country and for our freedom as well," Svitolina said. "And I'm very firm with my decision that boycotting is the right way to do it."
After a month-long break, Svitolina said she is "actively preparing" to return to tennis in April. Her first visit to Ukraine marks the longest time she has been separated from her daughter.
"Of course, I want to be with her, but I have a bigger mission to do for free Ukrainian people," said Svitolina, who came to the country as an ambassador of United 24, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's platform for collecting charitable donations.
During her brief stay, she also met Zelenskyy.
On Tuesday, Svitolina visited one of Kyiv's maternity centers to donate a generator, needed to support the operation of the hospital. Hospitals in the country have often been disrupted by massive Russian missile attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure.
She said this week's visit triggered the feelings she felt on the first days of the invasion.
"It was extremely stressful for me. I was still playing on the tour then, competing at some tournaments. I couldn't focus. I couldn't live my life normally. It was a horrible time for me," she recalled. "Visiting the maternity center really reminded me what I was going through and how strong these women are."
Originally from Odesa, which now suffers frequent power outages because of damaged electricity infrastructure, Svitolina said Feb. 24 -- the date that will mark one year since the invasion started -- will forever be a tragic day for every Ukrainian.
"This is something that you would never wish your enemy to face," Svitolina said. "It's a very sad day."