Faced with threats of withdrawals and growing animosity in the athletes’ village, the organizers of the Paralympic Winter Games reversed course on Thursday and expelled athletes from Russia and Belarus.
The about-face came less than 24 hours after the International Paralympic Committee announced it would allow Russians and Belarusians to compete when the Games open on Friday, but only as color-neutral athletes, flags and other national symbols removed due to the invasion of Ukraine. .
The Paralympic Games in Beijing, which follow the Winter Olympics, end on March 13.
“War has now come to these Games and behind the scenes many governments have influence over our cherished event,” IPC President Andrew Parsons said on Thursday after announcing the ban. “We were trying to protect the Games from war.”
Parsons said the IPC had underestimated the negative reaction to letting Russians and Belarusians compete – even as neutral athletes. The Athletes’ Village, which Parsons hoped would be a place of harmony, he now depicts as a powder keg.
And it was not only the Ukrainians who resented Russian and Belarusian participation, but in all areas.
“We don’t have any specific incident reports of assault or anything like that,” Parsons said. “But it was a very, very unstable environment in the (athletes’) village.
“It was a very rapid escalation that we didn’t think was going to happen. We didn’t think whole delegations, or even teams within delegations, would pull out, boycott, not participate.”
The first case came when Latvia said their curlers would refuse to play the Russians in a scheduled group match.
IPC spokesman Craig Spence described a sea change in just over 12 hours from athletes, administrators and politicians. He said the conversation was “now we are thinking of going home. We don’t play.
“This threatens the viability of this event. So that’s a huge change,” Spence said. “The atmosphere in the Village is not pleasant.”
Parsons said he expected legal action from the Russian and Belarusian Paralympic committees, which he said he feared on Wednesday when he decided their athletes could compete. The likely venue is the Court of Arbitration for Sport based in Switzerland.
“We believe the Russian Paralympic Committee and the Belarusian Paralympic Committee may take legal action,” Parsons said. “But the facts we are expressing here made us realize that this was the right decision to make.”
The Russian Paralympic Committee called the decision to expel its athletes “baseless” and “illegal”.
“(The Russian athletes) have done nothing that could be construed as being involved in the current political complications,” the RPC said.
Parsons said he understands the disappointment of the 71 Russians and 12 Belarusians who will be sent home. He said he didn’t know how quickly that would happen, especially with the severe COVID-19 restrictions in place in China.
“No one is happy with the decision, but it’s definitely the best decision for the Paralympic Games to go forward,” Parsons said.
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 sports organizations on Monday to exclude Russian and Belarusian athletes from international events, but it left the final decision to individual governing bodies.
The IOC was 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 at the 2014 Sochi Games. CIO also did not eliminate membership or leadership positions for Russians in its own organization.
Parsons also spoke directly to the Russian and Belarusian athletes, saying they weren’t at fault.
“To the para-athletes in the affected countries, we are truly sorry that you are affected by the decisions your governments made last week in violating the Olympic Truce,” Parsons said. “You are victims of the actions of your governments.”
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