In a stunning reversal, athletes from Russia and Belarus have been banned from the Paralympic Winter Games for their country’s role in the war in Ukraine, the International Paralympic Committee announced in Beijing on Thursday.
The about-face comes less than 24 hours after the IPC announced on Wednesday that it would allow athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete when the Games open on Friday, but only as neutral athletes without colors, flags and other national symbols.
The IPC was immediately criticized for its initial decision. It was called a betrayal that sent the wrong message to Russian leaders. The IPC also said it was clear that many athletes would refuse to compete against Russians or Belarusians, creating chaos for the Paralympics and damaging reputations.
IPC President Andrew Parsons, in announcing the initial measures Wednesday at a press conference in Beijing, openly sympathized with the Ukrainian people, but said his actions were limited by his organization’s rules and the fear of legal action.
Parsons said almost the opposite when announcing his reversal, noting that his constituents had pushed back.
“Over the past 12 hours, an overwhelming number of members have been in contact with us,” Parsons said in a statement. “They told us that if we do not reconsider our decision, it now risks having serious consequences.”
Parsons added: “What is clear is that the rapidly worsening situation now puts us in a unique and impossible position so close to the start of the Games.”
The IPC now joins sports like football, athletics, basketball, hockey and others that have imposed blanket bans on Russians and Belarusians.
The International Olympic Committee urged sporting bodies on Monday to exclude Russian and Belarusian athletes from international events, but it 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 following a state-sponsored doping scandal and cover-up during the Winter Olympics in 2014.
Russia was to have 71 athletes competing in Beijing. It was not immediately clear how many Belarusian athletes were involved. Ukraine announced that it would have 20.
The Paralympic Winter Games open on Friday and end on March 13.
Parsons also addressed Russian and Belarusian athletes.
“To the para-athletes of the affected countries, we are very sorry that you are affected by the decisions your governments made last week in violating the Olympic truce. You are victims of the actions of your governments.