BEIJING — As of Wednesday night, Paralympic Winter Games organizers were determined to have no choice but to allow athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete. On Thursday afternoon, they were equally resolute when they came to the opposite conclusion.
In a stunning reversal, the International Paralympic Committee bowed to strong internal pressure and banned athletes from Russia and Belarus on the eve of the opening ceremony, extending the two countries’ global sporting isolation following of the invasion of Ukraine.
Citing threats from several federations to boycott the Paralympic Games, growing discontent in the athletes’ village and fears that a “deteriorated” situation there could lead to violence, the International Paralympic Committee said the situation had changed so much overnight that the viability of the Games would be in danger if the organizers did not expel the Russian and Belarusian delegations.
“The environment in the village is deteriorating,” said IPC chairman Andrew Parsons. He said growing anger and threats from several National Committees, some under pressure from their governments, to pull out of the Games had made the situation “untenable”.
The announcement came less than a day after the committee said it would allow athletes from both countries to compete as neutrals in Beijing, a response to the invasion that has been widely criticized as inadequate. Thursday morning, Paralympic officials met again and decided they had no choice but to eliminate both teams.
Parsons said there had been no reports of clashes or violence between athletes, but tensions were mounting. He said there was “enormous” concern for the safety of participants, including 71 Russian athletes.
“The village is not the place for the fighting,” Parsons said.
The move made the Paralympic Games the latest international sports organization to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes and teams following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which was staged with Belarusian support. Sports such as football, tennis, motor racing and figure skating have already banned Russian and Belarusian athletes since the International Olympic Committee took the extraordinary step this week to suggest global federations and event organizers put implemented a global ban on athletes from both countries as a result of their actions in Ukraine.
The Russian and Belarusian Paralympic delegations – whose athletes were initially allowed to compete if they agreed to do so without their names, flags or national anthems – could appeal the decision in court. But the Games should hold their opening ceremony on Friday and their first events on Saturday.
The Russian Paralympic Committee criticized the reversal as “completely unfounded” and said it unfairly portrayed the Russian committee and its Paralympic athletes “as the perpetrators of current political disputes”.
“In this regard, the RPC considers the IPC’s decision illegal and reserves the right to defend the rights and interests of Russian para-athletes” in court, he said in a statement.
Ukrainian and Russian athletes trained on Thursday, sometimes side by side, but Parsons said the IPC would now work with the Russian and Belarusian delegations to bring their teams back from China.
On Wednesday, Parsons said the IPC could not withdraw athletes from Russia and Belarus because there was no specific mechanism to do so in the organization’s constitution; at the time, he said it was the IPC’s “duty” to allow Russians to participate.
On Thursday, he acknowledged that the legal situation had not changed, but the situation on the ground had changed. The executive board, he argued, was also required to protect the viability of the Paralympic Games in the face of growing discontent. On Thursday, for example, wheelchair curling and sledge hockey teams informed Paralympic officials that they would refuse to play against Russian opponents.
“The IPC is a membership-based organization,” he said, “and we are receptive to the views of our member organizations.”
By then, Parsons said, a large number of members had reached out and urged the IPC to reconsider. Ukrainian athletes issued a statement expressing their disapproval, saying the sports administrators’ claims of “political neutrality” were “a practical lie used to deflect calls to defend human rights and peace”.
On Thursday, their team leader left no doubt about the country’s position. “Russia and Belarus must exit the Paralympic Games as soon as possible,” said Valerii Sushkevich, a member of Ukraine’s parliament and chairman of the national Paralympic committee.
Parsons, who said on Wednesday that Russian and Belarusian athletes had the right to compete because they were not responsible for the invasion, expressed regret on Thursday that his dream of competing at the Games is not coming true.
“To the para-athletes in the affected countries, we are truly sorry that you are affected by the decisions your government made last week in breaking the Olympic truce,” he said. “You are victims of the actions of your government.
The Games, however, will take place. The opening ceremony will take place in Beijing on Friday evening and competition will begin on Saturday in alpine skiing, sledge hockey, cross-country skiing and wheelchair curling.
Said Parsons: “We can at least preserve the experience of the approximately 600 athletes who still compete here.”