— Published 28 July 2023

“We’ll never shake hands with them”

The decision is an important one. A decree issued by the Ukrainian Ministry of Sport prohibiting its athletes from taking part in competitions involving Russian and/or Belarusian competitors was amended on Thursday July 27. In its new version, the text now only concerns “athletes representing the Russian Federation or the Republic of Belarus“, under their flags and colors.

The nuance is not small. Until the decree was published, Ukrainian athletes were expected to withdraw from an international event, or even not make the trip, when the entry lists showed competitors from Russia or Belarus, regardless of their status. From now on, they have the right to take part in all competitions where neutral individual athletes carrying a Russian or Belarusian passport are present.

With this inflexion, Ukraine is moving closer to the IOC. It recognizes the concept of neutral athletes that the Olympic body puts forward in its recommendation to international federations. Above all, Kiev moves away from the prospect of a boycott of the Paris 2024 Games.

Coincidentally, the Ukrainian Ministry of Sport’s decree was published on the same day as a face-off on the competition field between a Ukrainian athlete and a Russian opponent. The first since February 2022 and the outbreak of conflict in Ukraine.

The event took place in Milan, at the World Fencing Championships. It was supposed to be symbolic. But it turned out badly.

Ukrainian sabre fencer Olga Kharlan was due to face Russian Anna Smirnova in the first round. Up until the evening of the previous day, the assault had not taken place. The Ukrainian had decided not to take to the piste. But, as a result of a new decree, she obtained permission from her delegation to compete against Anna Smirnova (photo above).

The Ukrainian won easily. But once the assault was over, Olga Kharlan refused to shake her opponent’s hand. In protest, Anna Smirnova remained seated on the piste. Under its rules, the International Fencing Federation (FIE) excluded the Ukrainian sabre fencer, four-time world champion and bronze medallist at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Games, from the competition.

We, the Ukrainian athletes, are ready to face the Russians on the sporting field, but we will never shake their hands,” explained Olga Kharlan after the announcement of her disqualification. She added that she had had a conversation the previous day with the president of the FIE, Greek Emmanuel Katsiadakis, in which she had raised the risk of a provocation.

Later in the day, the Ukrainian Fencing Federation announced that it had “protested” against the disqualification of its sabre fencer. “We have submitted our protest to the office of the International Fencing Federation. We expect this protest to be taken into account immediately, so that the disqualification can be annulled,” Mykhaïlo Illiachev, one of the federation’s directors, told the media.

Since Lausanne, the IOC has invited itself into the debate, albeit soberly. It called on the Olympic movement to show “sensitivity” towards Ukrainian athletes. Above all, it welcomed the new position adopted by the Kiev authorities. An inflexion that will, the IOC stresses, enable Ukrainian athletes “to qualify for the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024.”