Russia-Ukraine conflict: Fencer Olga Kharlan ban lifted as she is handed Olympic spot

Ukraine’s Olga Kharlan offered her sabre when Russian Anna Smirnova approached for a handshake

Ukrainian fencer Olga Kharlan has been handed a spot in the Olympics and had her World Championships ban lifted following her refusal to shake hands with Russian Anna Smirnova.

She was disqualified after offering her sabre to tap blades instead of shaking hands following her 15-7 win in Milan.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach wrote a letter to Kharlan saying the body would “allocate an additional quota place” to her if she could not qualify because of her “unique situation”.

Meanwhile, the International Fencing Federation reinstated Kharlan at the championships, which will allow her to take part in the team competition.

Before the two announcements, Kharlan said: “Today is kind of better because of all the support that I have.

“Rules must be changed. For Ukrainians, during this war we just can’t do handshakes, and you have to change, and you have to have some respect for us.

“When I have a choice… where I shake hands I will never shake hands with her. I’m sorry but there is something bigger than Olympic Games or license or fencing and finally I understood that, there is something more. The support for the Ukrainian people, it’s incredible.”

Before the IOC’s decision, the president of Russia’s Olympic Committee said the body had “picked a side” in the Russia-Ukraine dispute.

That was because the IOC had responded to Kharlan’s initial suspension by encouraging sports federations to handle Ukrainian athletes with sensitivity.

But Stanislav Pozdnyakov said the IOC advice “clearly showed duplicity”.

“The statement in question indicates that the IOC determined for itself and picked a side in the political conflict, [and] began to act in the interests of this side,” he said on Telegram.

After Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the IOC imposed sporting sanctions on Russia and its ally Belarus but earlier this year recommended that Russian and Belarusian athletes could compete as individuals under a neutral flag and with no anthem.

Kharlan became the first fencer to face a Russian or Belarusian since the invasion.

After the snub, Smirnova staged a 45-minute sit-down protest, resulting in Kharlan, a four-time individual world champion and four-time Olympic medallist, being shown a black card.

That ruled her out of the women’s sabre individual event and it appeared she would miss the team competition as well before the federation lifted her suspension.

She was competing at the World Championships after the Ukraine sports ministry reversed its decision not to allow Ukrainian athletes to compete in qualifying events for the 2024 Olympics if Russians are taking part.

“We are glad that they will be given this opportunity, and at the same time we are aware of the difficult inner conflicts they may have, given the aggression against their country,” the IOC said in a statement it reiterated after Pozdnyakov’s comments.

“Therefore, we encourage international federations to handle situations involving Ukrainian and individual neutral athletes with the necessary degree of sensitivity.

“We continue to stand in full solidarity with the Ukrainian athletes and the Olympic community of Ukraine.”

Kharlan, 32, followed the example of Ukrainian tennis players such as Elina Svitolina by not shaking hands with Russian or Belarusian opponents, but International Fencing Federation (FIE) rules state that fencers must shake hands.

She claimed that FIE president Emmanuel Katsiadakis had assured her that it was “possible” not to shake hands and offer a touch of her blade instead.

“I thought I had his word, to be safe, but apparently, no,” Kharlan added.

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