LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — The International Fencing Federation has voted to allow athletes from Russia and its ally Belarus to resume competing in international events after an exclusion lasting more than a year, four national federations said on Friday.
The decision appears to allow Russians and Belarusians to compete for qualifying spots for next year’s Paris Olympics.
It puts Ukrainian athletes in the position of either competing against Russians — likely including members of the Russian military — or boycotting key events entirely.
The FIE has not published the decision on its website following a federation congress held on Friday, and it did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, four national federations issued statements that Russia and Belarus would be allowed to return after they were suspended because of the invasion of Ukraine.
British Fencing said Russian and Belarusian fencers would be cleared to return from mid-April and they would compete as neutral athletes without national symbols. That is in line with efforts from the International Olympic Committee to create a pathway for them to return to competition.
British Fencing said the vote included language that the Russians and Belarusians would compete “subject to possible future IOC recommendations/decisions, and in compliance with conditions of neutrality and individual eligibility.” The FIE did not define what neutrality would mean in practice, British Fencing added.
Almost all Olympic sports have excluded Russian and Belarusian athletes and teams since shortly after the invasion, when the IOC recommended exclusion on safety grounds. The IOC now argues that to keep that exclusion in place would amount to discrimination based on citizenship.
Belarus’ fencing federation acknowledged the FIE decision in a brief statement which made no mention of neutrality.
Ukraine’s governing body said it was “deeply shocked” at the decision and would hold talks on how to respond.
Ukrainian sports leaders have previously threatened to boycott next year’s Olympics in Paris if Russians and Belarusians are allowed to compete. Ukraine is particularly concerned about Russian athletes who are also members of the military, as several leading Russian fencers are.
There was stinging criticism of the FIE decision from the governing body of fencing in the United States.
“Today’s ‘yes’ vote by more than 80 delegates, while not a direct endorsement of Russia’s war, does send a message to the world that a majority of the international fencing community is ready to look the other way and welcome back fencers funded by and supported by the Russian government,” USA Fencing CEO Phil Andrews said. “Some of these fencers have direct ties to the military, and many have not publicly condemned the atrocities of their government.”
Billionaire Russian businessman Alisher Usmanov has been the FIE president since 2008, though he suspended himself from his duties on March 1, 2022, days after the invasion. Fencing has ties to Olympic leadership because IOC president Thomas Bach was a gold medal-winning fencer for West Germany before entering sports politics.
Another Olympic sport, judo, allowed Russians and Belarusians to resume competing in January but the two countries haven’t entered any World Tour events. The men’s and women’s tennis tours allow individuals from Russia and Belarus to play as neutrals, but they aren’t allowed to enter national team events such as the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup.
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