More Ukrainian athletes could be competing against Russian opponents in Olympic qualifying events after a change in policy. A controversial fencing match Thursday highlighted the difficulties that could bring.
Ukraine’s government signaled it will no longer bar its athletes from competing against Russians who are taking part in sporting events as “neutral athletes,” a significant easing of its boycott policy a year before the Paris Olympics.
Hours after the new policy was announced, Ukrainian fencer Olga Kharlan, a four-time Olympian, stepped up to fight an officially-neutral Russian opponent at the world fencing championships. Kharlan won, but was later disqualified after refusing to shake her opponent’s hand.
The International Olympic Committee said it welcomed an easing of the boycott, but pointed to a need for “sensitivity” to Ukraine’s concerns.
Since April, it was government policy for Ukrainian athletes to boycott any national team competitions that allowed athletes from Russia or Belarus to compete. That applied even if the Russians and Belarusians were officially considered “Individual Neutral Athletes,” the preferred term of the International Olympic Committee.
A decree dated Wednesday says Ukrainian athletes and teams will only be required to boycott if competitors from Russia or Belarus are competing under their national flags or other symbols, or have signaled allegiance to either of those countries in another way.
The change in policy could smooth the way for Ukrainians to compete at next year’s Paris Olympics, but Kharlan’s match showed the challenges that await.
“This decision will allow Ukrainian athletes to participate in international competitions and will enable them to qualify for the Olympic Games Paris 2024,” the IOC said. “We are glad that they will be given this opportunity, and at the same time we are aware of the difficult inner conflicts they may have, given the aggression against their country.
“Therefore, we encourage international federations to handle situations involving Ukrainian and Individual Neutral Athletes with the necessary degree of sensitivity. We continue to stand in full solidarity with the Ukrainian athletes and the Olympic community of Ukraine.”
Kharlan, who has won four Olympic medals, including gold in 2008, beat Anna Smirnova of Russia 15-7 at the world championships – a key ranking event for Olympic qualifying – on Thursday in Milan, Italy. However, Smirnova refused to leave after the bout for more than 50 minutes, sitting on a chair on the fencing piste in an apparent protest because Kharlan refused to shake hands at the end.
The Ukrainian pointed her sabre in the direction of Smirnova. Touching blades was used as an alternative to handshakes at fencing competitions during the coronavirus pandemic.
Kharlan was later listed as excluded from the event in the tournament bracket. The International Fencing Federation did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the reason. Smirnova was not reinstated and Bulgarian fencer Yoana Ilieva, who Kharlan had been due to face next, advanced by walkover.
Another Ukrainian, Igor Reizlin, withdrew from his event at the same world championships when he was drawn to compete against a Russian in the men’s epee tournament on Wednesday, before the decree was published.
The IOC favors allowing Russians and Belarusians to compete as “neutral athletes” without national symbols in Olympic qualifying events. The governing bodies of most Olympic sports have either adopted the IOC policy already or are working on plans to do so.
The IOC still recommends barring Russia and Belarus from team sports and excluding athletes who are contracted to the military or security forces.
The IOC – which initially recommended that sports bodies exclude Russian and Belarusian athletes on safety grounds last year – says it has not taken a final decision on allowing “neutral” Russian and Belarusian athletes at next year’s Paris Olympics.
Ukraine had previously objected strongly to the policy, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy saying in January that “any neutral flag of Russian athletes is stained with blood” and that Russia would exploit their presence for propaganda.
Ukrainian teams in fencing and judo already boycotted events which included Russians following last year’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. A government decree in April made that state policy as IOC-backed efforts to reintegrate Russian and Belarusian athletes gathered pace.
Some Ukrainian athletes publicly disagreed with the boycott policy, saying that it was better to ensure Ukraine was still represented even if they would prefer Russians did not compete.
Tennis is the one sport where matches between Ukrainians and Russians or Belarusians have been commonplace. The men’s and women’s tennis tours allowed players from Russia and Belarus to keep competing without national flags last year. Ukrainian players have refused to shake hands with them, sometimes prompting boos from the crowd.
The dispute between Kharlan and Smirnova could resonate with Olympic decision-makers. Fencing may be not be one of the most-watched sports at the Olympics, but former fencers are influential behind the scenes.
IOC president Thomas Bach, who has signaled his organization will monitor the behavior of Russians and Belarusians given neutral status, is himself a former fencer who won a gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Senior sports officials in Russia and Ukraine are also former fencers who were teammates at the 1992 Barcelona Games.