Faced with threats of withdrawal and growing hostility in the athletes’ village, organizers of the Winter Olympics on Thursday reversed course and expelled athletes from Russia and Belarus.
The change came less than 24 hours after the International Paralympic Committee announced that it would allow Russians and Belarusians to compete when the Games open on Friday, but only as neutral athletes with colors, flags and other national symbols removed due to the invasion of Ukraine. .
The Paralympic Games in Beijing, which follow the Winter Olympics, conclude on March 13.
“The war is now at these games, and many governments are having behind-the-scenes influence over our cherished event,” IPC President Andrew Parsons said Thursday after the ban was announced. “We were trying to protect the toys from war.”
Parsons said the IPC underestimated the negative reaction to allowing Russians and Belarusians to compete – even as neutral athletes. The Athletes’ Village, which Parsons hoped would be a place of harmony, is now depicted as a gunpowder box.
And not only Ukrainians were upset with the Russian and Belarusian participation, but in all areas.
“We don’t have reports of any specific incidents of aggression or anything like that,” Parsons said. “But it was a very volatile environment in the (athletes’) village.
It was a very rapid escalation that we didn’t think was going to happen. We didn’t think entire delegations, or even teams within delegations, would withdraw, boycott, not participate.”
The first case came when Latvia said that its players would refuse to play against the Russians in a scheduled team match.
IPC spokesperson Craig Spence described a stark change in just over 12 hours from athletes, administrators and politicians. He said the conversation was “Now we’re thinking about going home. We’re not playing.”
“This threatens the viability of this event. This is a big change,” Spence said. “The weather in the village is not nice.”
Parsons said he expected legal action by the Russia and Belarus Paralympic Committees, which he said he feared on Wednesday when he decided the athletes could compete. A possible location is the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport.
“We believe that the Russian Paralympic Committee and the Belarusian Paralympic Committee may take legal action,” Parsons said. “But the facts we are expressing here led us to understand that this was the right decision to make.”
The Russian Paralympic Committee called the decision to expel its players “unfounded” and “illegal”.
“(The Russian athletes) have not done anything that can be construed as being implicated in the current political complications,” RPC said.
Parsons said he understood the disappointment of the 71 Russians and 12 Belarusians who will be repatriated. He said he doesn’t know how quickly that will happen, especially with the severe COVID-19 restrictions in China.
“No one is happy with the decision but for sure this is the best decision for the disabled going forward,” Parsons said.
IPC now joins sports such as football, track and field, basketball, hockey, and others that have imposed a blanket ban on Russians and Belarusians.
The International Olympic Committee on Monday pressed sports organizations to exclude Russian and Belarusian athletes from international events, but 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 in the wake of the state-sponsored doping scandal and cover-up of the 2014 Sochi Games. Nor has the IOC removed membership or leadership positions from Russians in its organization. .
Parsons also addressed the Russian and Belarusian athletes directly, saying that they were not at fault.
“To athletes with disabilities from the affected countries, we regret that you have been affected by the decisions your governments took last week to breach the Olympic Truce,” Parsons said. “You are victims of the actions of your governments.”
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