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Ukrainian fencer disqualified after refusing to shake hands with Russian opponent

by Elsa Court and The Kyiv Independent news desk July 27, 2023 3:48 PM 3 min read
Olga Kharlan of Ukraine during Fencing Women's Sabre Individual at day eight of the European Games 2023 at Tauron Arena on June 27, 2023 in Krakow, Poland. (Photo Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)
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Ukrainian fencer Olga Kharlan has been disqualified from the World Fencing Championship after refusing to shake hands with her defeated Russian opponent on July 27.

Kharlan won the match in Milan against Russian fencer Anna Smirnova, who was competing under a neutral flag.

As the match finished, the two athletes took off their masks and Smirnova put out her hand. In response, Kharlan put out her sword in front of her in an apparent offer to touch sabres instead.

The two exchanged words, which were not picked up by microphones. Smirnova then refused to leave piste for 10 minutes after the match ended.

Kharlan's following match, against Yoana Ilieva from Bulgaria, did not go ahead, and Ilieva moved on to the final.

Kharlan is the winner of 13 World Cup gold medals, four World Championship gold medals, and two Olympic bronzes.

The fencer lives in Italy but grew up in Mykolaiv. Her home town is a frequent target of Russian attacks and primarily suffers from Shahed-type drones and Kalibr cruise missiles.

A strike on a residential building in Mykolaiv on July 20 injured 19 people, including five children

Olga Kharlan of Ukraine during Fencing Women's Sabre Individual at day eight of the European Games 2023 at Tauron Arena on June 27, 2023 in Krakow, Poland. (Screenshot from live broadcast)

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Russian and Belarusian participation in international sports has been a point of contention for Ukraine. Many Russian athletes are members of military clubs such as the Central Sports Club of the Army (CSKA), which remains part of Russia's Defense Ministry.

In April 2023, Ukraine banned all official delegations of national sports teams from participating in international competitions where athletes from Russia or Belarus are present.

However, on July 26, Sports Minister Vadym Gutzeit announced that Ukrainian athletes will be able to compete alongside Belarusians and Russians if they maintain a neutral status.

The ministry's order still prohibits Ukrainian athletes from participating in competitions "where athletes representing the Russian Federation and/or the Republic of Belarus compete under their national flags."

If there is any sign of breach of the neutral status, the order states that the national team has to terminate its participation in an event.

In March 2023, the International Olympic Committee recommended that Russian and Belarusian athletes be again allowed to participate in international competitions, provided they do so as "individual neutral athletes."

On July 26, the IOC announced it has not invited  Russia and Belarus to the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

Over 30 countries have urged the IOC to continue its ban on Russia and Belarus from competing in international sporting events, including the 2024 Olympic Games.

The International Fencing Federation allowed Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete from mid-April 2023.

Ukraine’s sports minister: As Russia kills our athletes, it’s not the time to allow Russians back to international sports
Editor’s Note: This interview was recorded before the International Olympics Committee’s announcement on allowing some Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in Olympic qualification tournaments. Following the executive board meeting on March 28, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) rec…
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