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A decision by the International Paralympic Committee on Wednesday to allow Russians and Belarussians to compete as “neutrals athletes” generated a heart-wrenching reply only hours after it was announced.
Russian athletes had already been slated to compete as RPC, short for Russian Paralympic Committee, as punishment for the state-sponsored doping scandal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and a subsequent cover-up.
The IPC added more restrictions on the Russians when the Paralympics open on Friday. Belarus was sanctioned for its part in aiding Russia with the invasion and war against Ukraine.
But there was no expulsion. And that hit a nerve.
At a news conference in Beijing hours after the decision, a reporter who said he worked for the Kyiv Post asked IPC president Andrew Parsons what he would say to the family of young biathlete Yevhen Malyshev.
Malyshev was killed this week in Ukraine, but the exact circumstances of his death are unclear. The International Biathlon Union said Wednesday he “died this week serving in the Ukrainian military.”
The Kyiv Post reporter held up the young man’s photograph as he questioned Parsons.
“I cannot even start to imagine the pain that his family is feeling at the moment,” Parsons said. “I can only tell them that my deepest thoughts are with them. This is absolutely not fair. It is disgusting. It is against humanity.”
Parsons repeatedly defended the decision not to expel Russian and Belarusian athletes, saying the rules of the IPC did not allow it. The IPC is based in Germany, and he said any expulsion “would be overturned in the German court of law.”
“The principle of political neutrality and the genuine belief in the transformative power of sport must be our North Star, our strength or perhaps our lifeboat,” Parsons added.
The Ukraine-based reporter said he was the only journalist from the country that had managed to reach Beijing, and he pressed Parsons again to explain why Russians and Belarusians should be allowed to compete — even as neutral athletes. He repeatedly identified them as being from the “aggressor nations.”
“I cannot even imagine how painful it is to be a Ukrainian right now,” said Parsons, a Brazilian. “I try to sympathize and try to empathize. It’s difficult. My country is not at war and my family is not hiding themselves in the subways of the capital of my nation.”
IPC spokesman Craig Spence acknowledged the distaste many feel for allowing Russians and Belarusians to compete.
“We have the world’s eyes on us right now, and they may not be agreeing with the decision,” Spence said.
Nadine Dorries, a British minister who is responsible for sports, called it “the wrong decision.”
“They (IPC) must join the rest of the world in condemning this barbaric invasion by banning Russian and Belarussian athletes from competing,” she said.
Parsons said the decision was not unanimous among his dozen board members, but he said the majority favored it. He did not give a voting breakdown.
Both delegations will be excluded from the medal table, and the IPC said it would not hold events in either country “while the present situation continues.” Parsons called it the “harshest possible punishment we can hand down within our constitution and the current IPC rules.”
Athletes from Russia and Belarus will instead compete under the Paralympic flag and use the Paralympic anthem. The RPC delegation must cover the “RPC” symbol on uniforms in all events and ceremonies. The Belarus delegation must cover its national flag on uniforms.
The IPC said it would also withdraw the “Paralympic Honor” given to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It said “Paralympic Orders” were also withdrawn from: Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi organizing committee (now Russia’s deputy prime minister); Dmitry Kozak, deputy prime minister of Russia (now deputy chief of staff of the presidential executive office); Oleg Syromolotov, chief of the Interagency Security Command Centre for the Sochi Games (now deputy foreign minister); Alexander Gorovoy, deputy chief of Interagency Security Command Centre (now first deputy interior minister).
The International Olympic Committee on Monday pushed sports bodies to exclude Russian and Belarusian athletes from international events, but it left the final decision to individual governing bodies. The IOC has been slow to crack down on Russia, allowing its athletes to compete in the last four Olympics following the Sochi doping scandal.
The IOC said the action was needed now to “protect the integrity of global sports competitions and for the safety of all the participants” but left sports bodies with a way around the exclusion by adding that Russians and Belarusians could compete as neutral athletes or teams if expulsion was not possible because of short notice.
The move by the IPC comes as Russia is being barred from competing in a long list of sports including ice skating, skiing, soccer, hockey, basketball, track and field, and some tennis events. Some sports like swimming haven’t followed the recommendation from the IOC to ban Russians, instead allowing them to compete as neutral athletes.
The IOC, however, has not removed the membership or leadership positions from Russians in its own organization.
Dozens of Ukrainian athletes wrote an open letter to the IOC and IPC asking for the Russian and Belarusian Olympic and Paralympic committees to be suspended.
“Your lack of action will send a message to every athlete and the world that you have chosen Russia and Belarus interests over athlete interests,” the letter states. “Your legacy will be defined by your actions.”
Parsons acknowledged the possibility that some Paralympic athletes might refuse to compete against their counterparts from Russia. He also had said the options for the IPC were “limited” because of the possibility of legal challenges from Russia or elsewhere.
IOC President Thomas Bach will not attend the Paralympics and has designated Parsons — an IOC member — to represent the body. IOC vice president Ser Miang Ng was to attend, but has tested positive for COVID-19. The IOC said Ng had only mild symptoms.
Paralympic officials say 648 athletes and 49 delegations will take part in the Winter Paralympics. There were 2,900 athletes at last month’s Winter Olympics with 91 delegations.
Officials say 71 Russian athletes are expected to compete in the Paralympics, joined by 20 from Ukraine. The entire Ukrainian delegation was expected to arrive in time for Friday’s opening ceremony. The Paralympics close March 13.
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