— Published 3 April 2023

For Russia, a return more theoretical than practical

The door is open to them. At least in theory. But in practice, the entry into international competitions is proving to be more complex than expected for Russian fencers.

Since the vote of the International Fencing Federation (FIE) on 10 March in favour of the return of Russian and Belarusian athletes from this month of April, for the beginning of the qualification period for the Paris 2024 Games, it is now possible for them to regain their place on the international circuit. But it is difficult to say with certainty that the Russian fencers will really push the door of a World Cup stage.

The Russian Fencing Federation announced on Sunday 2 April, through its president, Ilgar Mamedov: it will not send any athletes to Poznan, Poland, for the Women’s Foil World Cup. The event is scheduled for 21-24 April. It is the first in the long qualification process for the Paris 2024 Games.

Will Russian fencers take part in Poland? Of course not, it is unacceptable,” he said on Sunday, quoted by the Ria Novosti news agency.

At issue are the conditions imposed by the Polish federation to participate in the competition. They state that Russian and Belarusian foil fencers must sign a written document stating that they do not support the offensive in Ukraine and are not employed by the army or a security body.

The Russian Fencing Federation rejects them outright. The National Olympic Committee (ROC) has also rejected the neutrality conditions suggested by the IOC for the possible return of Russian and Belarusian athletes.

The Polish Federation forgot that it was a sporting body, not a political one,” insisted Ilgar Mamedov. “Unfortunately, everything is mixed up. Its statement is specifically political, it has nothing to do with sport. These provocative conditions will not allow us to participate in these competitions. Everything is done for that.”

The Russian leader explained to AFP that the conditions imposed by Poland are not only political, but in practice prevent a return of part of the Russian fencing elite to the international scene. “Our best athletes come from either CSKA or Dynamo,” says Ilgar Mamedov. The two big Moscow clubs, created a century ago, are both closely linked to the Russian army.

This first renunciation could lead to others. Poland, in particular, is determined to block the presence of Russian and Belarusian athletes in its competitions. At the top of the list is the next European Games, scheduled for 21 July to 2 July 2023 in Krakow and the Malopolska region.

Marcin Nowak, the head of the organising committee, made it clear last week in an interview with a national radio station: “Under no circumstances and in no way will athletes representing Russia and Belarus take part in our events“. The Pole even suggested that events where international federations ultimately decide not to include the 2023 European Games in the qualification process for the Paris 2024 Games, due to Polish opposition to a Russian and Belarusian presence, “will simply not take place.”

Poland is not the only country where the prospect of Russian and Belarusian athletes returning has led the sports movement to take drastic action. Germany and France have already cancelled one stage each of the Fencing World Cup. Denmark followed suit by cancelling a satellite tournament on the international fencing circuit.

With less than 500 days to go before the Paris 2024 Games, the return of Russian and Belarusian athletes is still very much a possibility. Of course, the IOC has formally recommended it to the international federations. But not all will follow its instructions. And for those that do support its recommendation, they will have to slalom between the cancellation of events and the conditions imposed by the political and/or sporting authorities of the countries.

In the light of the latest events, it now seems possible, even probable, that the question of Russia’s presence at the Paris 2024 Games will be settled on its own, without a formal decision by the IOC. By an inability of the athletes to qualify, and a refusal by Russia to accept the conditions imposed by the Olympic movement.