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Disqualification of Ukraine fencer Kharlan reversed

July 29, 2023

Olga Kharlan's disqualification for not shaking hands with her Russian opponent after defeating her at the world championships has been reversed. She has also been guaranteed a spot at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Ukrainian fencer Olga Kharlan removes her electronic tether after defeating Russian opponent Anna Smirnova at the world fencing championships in Milan, Italy
'We'll never shake hands with them' said Olga Kharlan after the incident, saying 'there are more important things than medals'Image: Tibor Illyes/dpa/picture alliance

The International Fencing Federation (FIE) on Friday reversed its decision to disqualify Ukrainian fencer Olga Kharlan, allowing her to participate in the upcoming team competition.

She was also awarded a spot at the 2024 Paris Olympics by Thomas Bach, the head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Kharlan had been disqualified during the fencing world championships in Milan, Italy, after she refused to shake hands with her Russian opponent Anna Smirnova — who was competing as a neutral athlete — after defeating her 15-7 in the saber competition. Fencing rules state that competitors must shake hands after a bout.

Smirnova immediately approached Kharlan with hand extended, but the Ukrainian simply held out her saber toward the Russian.

Smirnova staged a 45-minute protest after the incident, refusing to leave the piste. Kharlan's disqualification meant she was denied ranking points toward Olympic qualification.

IOC President Bach calls for 'sensitivity' toward Ukrainian athletes

In a letter to Kharlan, IOC President Bach wrote, "Given your unique situation, the International Olympic Committee will allocate an additional quota place to you for the Olympic Games Paris 2024 in case you will not be able to qualify in the remaining period."

The guarantee was necessitated by the fact that each sport has a strictly fixed number of spots at its disposal. Kharlan, 32, is a four-time Olympic medalist.

Bach acknowledged the "roller coaster of emotions and feelings" Kharlan was likely experiencing and called for "sensitivity" when it came to the issue of Ukrainian and Russian athletes competing against one another at international sporting events.

Kharlan (l) said she was told a blade touch would suffice as a gesture of sportsmanshipImage: CLAUDIA GRECO/REUTERS

Russian Olympic Committee president rails against 'duplicitous' IOC

The head of Russia's Olympic Committee on Friday accused the IOC of picking sides on the issue. "The statement in question indicates that the IOC determined for itself and picked a side in the political conflict, [and] began to act in the interests of this side," wrote Stanislav Pozdnyakov on the messaging service Telegram.

Pozdnyakov railed against the "duplicity" of the IOC and continued by writing: "Now we have been involuntarily but clearly shown the attitude which absolutely any Russian will face at international competitions."

Russian invasion put athletes and sporting bodies in difficult spot

The IOC has struggled to manage the fallout from Russia's invasion of neighboring Ukraine in dealing with athletes from Russia and neighboring ally Belarus.

Sporting bans were initially leveled, though later Russian and Belarus athletes were allowed to compete as "neutrals," meaning they were not allowed to wear national insignias, nor would their national anthems be played at events.

The decision unnerved Ukraine, which barred its athletes from competitions where Russians and Belarusians were allowed to compete. It remains unclear whether the IOC will allow Moscow's or Minsk's athletes to participate as neutrals in the upcoming 2024 Paris Olympics.   

Kharlan: 'We'll never shake hands with them'

Kharlan said she had asked FIE Interim President Emmanuel Katsiadakis about the handshake before her bout and claims she was assured she would be allowed to offer a blade touch rather than a handshake after the match without fear of disqualification. "I thought I had his word, to be safe, but apparently, no," she said after the incident.

Despite the drama surrounding the controversy, Kharlan says she "really made the right choice. There is something more important than medals — my country, my family."

Kharlan, who received support from the government, athletes, celebrities and frontline soldiers, said, "My message today is that we Ukrainian athletes are ready to face Russians on the sports field but we will never shake hands with them."

Ukrainian tennis star Elina Svitolina was one of those who spoke up in defense of Kharlan's actions, saying it was "the right thing to do for our people."

Svitolina, who has also courted controversy by refusing to engage with Russian opponents who approached the net with extended hand despite her clear statements that she would not shake them, accused Smirnova of provoking Kharlan, asking, "Why don't Russians respect our position?" 

js/sri (AFP, AP)

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