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Paralympics reverses course and bans Russian and Belarusian athletes following outcry

An athlete of Belarus during training at the National Biathlon Center in Zhangjiakou, China, on March 3. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

An “overwhelming” response from Paralympians forced the International Paralympic Committee on Thursday to reverse its previous position and bar athletes from Russia and Belarus from participating in the Beijing Winter Games over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

After announcing Wednesday that participants from the two countries would be allowed to compete as “neutral athletes,” the IPC received a large volume of responses from members, some of whom threatened not to compete, IPC President Andrew Parsons said in a statement.

“Ensuring the safety and security of athletes is of paramount importance to us and the situation in the athlete villages is escalating and has now become untenable,” he said. “With this in mind and to preserve the integrity of these Games and the safety of all participants, we have decided to refuse the athlete entries from RPC and NPC Belarus,” referring to the two countries’ Paralympic committees.

Paralympics will allow Russians, Belarusians to compete as ‘neutral athletes’ in Beijing

Parsons said the decision would directly affect 83 Para-athletes from Russia and Belarus and added, “However, if RPC and NPC Belarus remain here in Beijing, then nations will likely withdraw. We will likely not have a viable Games.”

He said that while the IPC believes that sports and politics “should not mix,” the organization is receptive to its members’ views. “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.”

Ukrainian athletes this week published an open letter jointly signed by more than 20 other countries asking that the Russian and Belarusian Olympic and Paralympic Committees be suspended. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, supported by Belarus, is a clear breach of the Olympic and Paralympic Charters — a breach that must be met with strong sanctions,” the letter said.

IPC President Andrew Parsons said on March 3 that Russian and Belarusian athletes cannot compete in the Beijing Winter Games, reversing his original decision. (Video: Reuters)

In a news conference in Beijing on Thursday, IPC spokesman Craig Spence said there had been a huge change since the initial decision was made, with national Olympic committees not only calling for a ban but also saying they would not compete unless athletes from Russia and Belarus were excluded. “That threatens the viability of this event,” he said. “If we don’t act on that, then we are crazy, so we have.”

The IPC said in its statement Wednesday that the decision to allow the athletes to compete as “neutral” was the “harshest possible punishment we can hand down.”

Putin first ordered Russian troops into eastern Ukraine on Feb. 21, one day after the Closing Ceremonies of the Beijing Winter Olympics, before launching a full-scale invasion days later. Both actions were a violation of the Olympic Truce, a tradition backed by a U.N. resolution, that calls for a “cessation of hostilities” from a week before the Olympics start until a week after the Paralympic Games conclude to allow the sporting events to safely take place.

The Paralympics, an international competition for disabled athletes that is held after the Olympics in the host city, will begin Friday and conclude March 13.

During the Olympics, Russia was under scrutiny over a doping scandal involving 15-year-old figure skating star Kamila Valieva as well as a high-profile visit by Putin to Beijing, where he and Chinese President Xi Jinping used the occasion to announce their joint opposition to NATO.

China used its platform as host to rebuff criticism about human rights abuses in Xinjiang and to restate its claims over Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy, but most Olympians heeded the International Olympic Committee’s warnings to keep politics out of sport. One exception was Ukrainian skeleton rider Vladyslav Heraskevych, who flashed a sign reading, “No war in Ukraine.”

In his statement, Parsons apologized to the affected athletes for the result of their countries’ actions.

“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,” he said.