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Ukraine lifts ban on athletes competing against Russians, but tensions continue

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On Thursday, the Ukrainian fencer Olga Kharlan was disqualified  from the World Fencing Championships after refusing to shake hands with Russian fencer Anna Smirnova. 

It was the latest episode illustrating how the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is going beyond the battlefield and into sporting events.

Just days ago the Ukrainian sports ministry announced that it was lifting its ban on Ukrainian athletes competing against Russian and Belarusian athletes, clearing the way for Ukrainian participation in the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. 

Earlier this year, the ministry forbade official delegations of the Ukrainian national teams from competing in Olympic, non-Olympic and Paralympic international competitions in which Belarusian and Russian athletes participate. The ban applied to team sports events, leaving Ukrainian athletes in sports like tennis and cycling open to compete against Russian and Belarusian players.

Russian and Belarusian athletes have been banned from many competitions since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Belarus has served as a staging ground for Russian troops participating in the war.

But the International Olympic Committee issued guidelines earlier this year allowing some Russians and Belarusians to participate in competitions as neutral athletes.

Some officials from Ukraine had criticized the IOC’s decision and it seemed as though the ban by the Ukrainian Sports Ministry would remain in place, with Ukrainian athletes notably absent from this year’s judo and taekwondo world championships, where they would have needed to compete in order to qualify for the upcoming Olympic Games in Paris.

But the new ruling by the Ukrainian sports ministry allows for Ukrainian national teams to participate in international competitions against Russian and Belarusian athletes competing under the neutral flag. The shift in language means that Ukrainian athletes will be able to compete in the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris. 

“I think this was the right decision from Ukrainian Committee,” said Ukrainian tennis player Elina Svitolina to CBS News’s Margaret Brennan. 

Svitolina has drawn attention to the Ukrainian cause by refusing to shake hands with players from Russia and Belarus after matches where they competed as neutral athletes. This approach, used by several Ukrainian athletes across different sports, has been generated controversy. 

While Svitolina has been applauded for her efforts on the tennis court to bring attention to the war, other athletes like Kharlan –an Olympic medalist– have been criticized or reprimanded. Ukraine’s fencing federation stated that they will appeal the decision. 

“I did not want to shake hands with this athlete, and I acted with my heart. So when I heard that they wanted to disqualify me it killed me so much that I was screaming in pain,” Kharlan said in a post on social media, according to Reuters.

Svitolina also expressed frustration with Kharlan’s disqualification. “It’s horrible to see that the federations, international federations of other sports, they don’t respect our position. So hopefully there will be the right decision.”

When asked if there should be a boycott of the Paris Olympics, Svitolina said she would defer to the Ukrainian Sports Ministry.

“Our Ministry of Sports is doing everything possible, and hopefully they can make the right decision,” Svitolina said.  “I just want that, you know, our athletes don’t suffer.”

Sierra Sanders contributed to this report.

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