The Winter Paralympics has banned athletes from Russia and Belarus from the Games in Beijing after an international backlash to Wednesday’s decision to let them compete as neutrals.
Ahead of the Games’ opening ceremony on Friday, the International Paralympic Committee had said that Russian and Belarusian athletes could participate under the Paralympic flag, and that their nations would not feature on the medal table. That decision brought widespread condemnation, not least from Britain where the sport secretary Nadine Dorries called on the IPC to “urgently reconsider” in the context of Russia’s deadly invasion of Ukraine, a war which Belarus has aided.
On Thursday morning, barely 24 hours before the Paralympics were due to begin, the IPC released a statement explaining that the threat of multiple nations to boycott the Games had forced its hand.
Andrew Parsons, the IPC president, said: “At the IPC we are very firm believers that sport and politics should not mix. However, by no fault of its own the war has now come to these Games and behind the scenes many Governments are having an influence on our cherished event.
“In taking our decision yesterday we were looking at the long-term health and survival of the Paralympic Movement. We are fiercely proud of the principles and values that have made the Movement what it is today. However, what is clear is that the rapidly escalating situation has now put us in a unique and impossible position so close to the start of the Games. Yesterday we said we would continue to listen, and that is what we are doing.”
He added: ““In the last 12 hours an overwhelming number of members have been in touch with us and been very open, for which I am grateful. They have told us that if we do not reconsider our decision, it is now likely to have grave consequences for the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games. Multiple NPCs, some of which have been contacted by their governments, teams and athletes, are threatening not to compete.”
Parsons also apologised to the athletes affected, many of whom are already in Beijing for the quadrennial Games, and blamed Vladimir Putin for the outcome. “To the Para athletes from the impacted countries, we are very sorry that you are affected by the decisions your governments took last week in breaching the Olympic Truce. You are victims of your governments’ actions.”
There had a been a strong backlash to Wednesday’s decision to allow the athletes to compete, at a time when the globe has ostracised Russia in reaction to the war. Russia has already been excluded from the majority of the sporting world, including the 2022 World Cup and Women’s Euro 2022 by football’s global governing body Fifa.
Dorries, the digital, culture, media and sport secretary, had said on social media: “I’m extremely disappointed in the IPC – this is the wrong decision and I call on them to urgently reconsider. They must join the rest of the world in condemning this barbaric invasion by banning Russian and Belarussian [sic] athletes from competing.”
She added: “We will consider the full range of options in protest of this decision, in consultation with UK Sport and the British Paralympic Association. I will also be meeting with my international counterparts this week to discuss how we can respond collectively.”
A joint statement from the athletes of Ukraine and Global Athlete group, an international athlete-led pressure body that aims to inspire change in world sport, had said the IPC issued “another blow” to every Ukrainian athlete and citizen with its decision to allow them to compete.
“The demands of the athletes have been cast aside in favour of Russian interests,” the statement said. “Sports administrators are choosing bloodshed and profits over principle and stakeholders.”
“With or without a neutral label, the Russian and Belarusian athletes will use their athlete’s participation in the Games as state propaganda,” the statement added. “During the Games and upon the athletes’ return home, these authoritarian regimes will use every ounce of their athletes’ success to justify and distract from their brutal war.”