GENEVA — The IOC assured Ukrainian fencer Olga Kharlan on Friday that she will have a place at the Paris Olympics next year after she was disqualified from a key ranking event for refusing to shake hands with a Russian she had beaten.
In a letter to Kharlan, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said it would make a “unique exception” by allocating her an extra place to ensure she competes in Paris.
“It is admirable how you are managing this incredibly difficult situation,” wrote Bach, who like Kharlan is a former Olympic champion in a fencing team event.
Each Olympic sport has a strict quota for athletes within the IOC-imposed 10,500 overall total at the Summer Games in Paris.
A protected entry for the 32-year-old Kharlan, a four-time Olympic medalist, has now been found after controversy over her disqualification at the world championships on Thursday marred the event at Milan, Italy.
The incident between Kharlan and her Russian opponent – Anna Smirnova, who was competing as an approved neutral athlete – also cast doubt on the IOC’s hopes for athletes from the two countries to compete against each other without incident.
Kharlan comfortably beat Smirnova 15-7 in a first-round contest then refused a handshake, and instead pointed her sabre toward the Russian. Touching blades was used as an alternative to handshakes at fencing competitions during the coronavirus pandemic.
Smirnova stood facing Kharlan and did not raise her sabre. Kharlan then turned and left the piste and the Russian refused to leave for more than 50 minutes. Smirnova sat on a chair on the piste in an apparent protest over the handshake.
Kharlan was later disqualified by the International Fencing Federation (FIE) which denied her the chance to earn more ranking points that feed into Olympic qualification.
The IOC said Thursday that sports governing bodies should show “sensitivity” on issues involving Ukrainians and neutral athletes from Russia – an apparent suggestion that the FIE made an error.
One day later, Bach wrote to Kharlan acknowledging a “roller coaster of emotions and feelings” she must have.
The FIE changed course Friday by saying it would allow Kharlan to compete for Ukraine in the upcoming team sabre event, but still defended the decision to punish her. Kharlan had faced a suspension from the rest of the world championships and from other events.
Echoing the IOC, the FIE interim president Emmanuel Katsiadakis said the ruling “sends a message of sensitivity and understanding to our members and all sports federations, as the world faces tremendous challenges.” The FIE published a comment attributed to Kharlan saying she was ”thankful for this decision” and wanted to return to competition.
However, the FIE statement made no mention of allowing Ukrainians to avoid handshakes with Russian opponents in future – which could mean more disputes ahead of the Olympics – and the federation insisted it was right to punish Kharlan.
“The FIE stands fully behind the penalty, which, after a thorough review, is in complete accordance and compliance with its official rules and associated penalties,” it said.
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