In reversal, Paralympics bars athletes from Russia and Belarus
By David Waldstein
On Wednesday night, organizers of the Paralympic Winter Games were resolute that they had no option except to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete. On Thursday afternoon, they were equally resolute when they came to the opposite conclusion.
In a stunning reversal, the International Paralympic Committee bowed to heavy internal pressure and barred athletes from Russia and Belarus on the eve of the opening ceremony, extending the global sporting isolation of both countries in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.
Citing threats by several federations to boycott the Paralympic Games, mounting discontent in the athletes’ village and fears that a “deteriorating” situation there could lead to violence, the International Paralympic Committee, or IPC, said the situation had changed so dramatically overnight that the viability of the Games would be in jeopardy if organizers did not expel the Russian and Belarusian delegations.
“The environment in the village is deteriorating,” said Andrew Parsons, president of the IPC. He said rising anger and threats by multiple national committees, some under pressure from their governments, to withdraw from the Games had made the situation “untenable.”
Russia’s sports minister, Oleg Matytsin, told journalists in Moscow that the country was preparing an immediate appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland that would seek to overturn the exclusion of Russian athletes before the Games open.
“Today’s decision of the International Paralympic Committee to bar our team is a blatant violation of athletes’ rights and a manipulation of the Olympic Charter and human lives’ values in pursue of political goals,” Matytsin said, according to the state-run news agency TASS.
The announcement came less than a day after the committee had said it would allow athletes from both countries to compete as neutrals in Beijing, a response to the invasion that was widely criticized as inadequate. By Thursday morning, Paralympic officials met again and decided they had little choice but to throw out the two teams.
Parsons said that there had been no reports of confrontations or violence between athletes, but that tensions were rising. He said there was a “huge” concern for the safety of participants, including 71 Russian athletes.
“The village is not the place for fights,” Parsons said.
The move made the Paralympics the latest international sporting organization to bar Russian and Belarusian athletes and teams in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which was staged with Belarusian support. Sports like soccer, tennis, auto racing and figure skating already have barred Russian and Belarusian athletes since the International Olympic Committee took the extraordinary step this week of suggesting global federations and event organizers put in place a global ban on athletes from the two countries as a result of their actions in Ukraine.
The Russian and Belarusian Paralympic delegations — whose athletes initially had been cleared to compete if they agreed to do so without their national names, flags or anthems — could appeal the decision in court. But the Games are set to hold their opening ceremony on Friday, and their first events on Saturday.
Russia’s Paralympic committee criticized the reversal as “completely unfounded,” and said it unfairly portrayed the Russian committee and its Paralympic athletes “as the perpetrators of the current political conflicts.”
“In this regard, the RPC considers the IPC’s decision illegal and reserves the right to defend the rights and interests of Russian para athletes” in court, it said in a statement.
Athletes from both Ukraine and Russia practiced Thursday, sometimes side by side, but Parsons said the IPC now would work with the Russian and Belarusian delegations to get their teams home from China.
On Wednesday, Parsons had said the IPC could not remove the athletes from Russia and Belarus because there was no specific mechanism to do so in the organization’s constitution; at the time, he said it was the IPC’s “duty” to allow the Russians to participate.
On Thursday, he acknowledged that the legal situation had not changed, but that the situation on the ground had. The executive board, he argued, was equally bound to protect the viability of the Paralympic Games in the face of growing discontent. By Thursday, for example, teams in wheelchair curling and sled hockey had informed Paralympic officials that they would refuse to play against Russian opponents.
“The IPC is a membership-based organization,” he said, “and we are receptive to the views of our member organizations.”
By then, Parsons said, a large number of members had reached out and urged the IPC to reconsider its decision. Ukraine’s athletes released a statement voicing their disapproval, saying the claims of “political neutrality” from sports administrators were “a convenient lie used to deflect calls to stand up for human rights and peace.”
On Thursday, their team’s leader left no doubt about the country’s position. “Russia and Belarus must leave the Paralympic Games as soon as possible,” said Valerii Sushkevich, a member of Ukraine’s parliament and president of the nation’s Paralympic committee.
Parsons, who had declared Wednesday that the Russian and Belarusian athletes had a right to compete because they were not responsible for the invasion, expressed regret Thursday that their dreams of competing at the Games would not be fulfilled.
“To the para athletes from the impacted countries, we are very sorry that you are affected by the decisions that your government took last week in breaching the Olympic truce,” he said. “You are victims of your government’s actions.”
The Games, though, will go ahead. The opening ceremony will take place in Beijing on Friday night, and competition begins Saturday in Alpine skiing, sled hockey, cross-country skiing and wheelchair curling.
Said Parsons: “We can at least preserve the experience for the around 600 athletes that are still competing here.”