Russia, Belarus athletes can compete at Paralympics as neutrals

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Russians and Belarusians are allowed to compete at the Winter Paralympics that open Friday — as neutral athletes under the Paralympic flag and anthem and not included in the national medal standings.

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) said they were “the strongest possible actions” it could take within its rules in response to Russia invading Ukraine with the support of Belarus’ government.

“We think, in the current IPC rules framework, suspending either [National Paralympic Committee of] Russia or Belarus for breaching the Olympic Truce is something that would be overturned in the German court of law,” said Andrew Parsons, who is president of the IPC, which is based in Germany. “We do have to follow the rules of our own organization under the risk of having our decisions overturned.”

Parsons said that the Ukrainian Paralympic Committee president told him before the IPC board decision, “We would like to see the athletes from Russia and Belarus out.” Parsons said he had not spoken with the Ukrainian official in the hours since the decision.

Ukraine’s full delegation — including 20 athletes and nine guides — arrived in Beijing on Wednesday, according to the IPC.

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An IPC spokesperson said that if a hypothetical ban of Russian and Belarusian athletes was overturned, they would be allowed to compete as normal and count in the medal standings. (Russians would still compete under the Russian Paralympic Committee name (RPC) without the Russian name, flag and anthem due to previous sanctions for the nation’s doping violations.)

With Wednesday’s decision, Russian athletes and teams will be known as Neutral Paralympic Athletes (NPA). Belarus will be Paralympic Neutral Athletes (PNA). All RPC and Belarus flags, logos and symbolism on uniforms must be covered up.

“The IPC and wider Paralympic Movement is greatly concerned by the gross violation of the Olympic Truce by the Russian and Belarussian governments,” Parsons said in a press release. “The IPC Governing Board is united in its condemnation of these actions and was in agreement that they cannot go unnoticed or unaddressed.

“Now that this decision has been made, I expect all participating [National Paralympic Committees] to treat the neutral athletes as they would any other athletes at these Games, no matter how difficult this may be. Unlike their respective governments, these Paralympic athletes and officials are not the aggressors, they are here to compete in a sport event like everybody else.”

On Monday, the International Olympic Committee, which is separate from the IPC, urged sports federations to bar athletes and officials from Russia and Belarus to protect the integrity of the events and the safety of the other participants.

In the same release, the IOC also supported the IPC, noting it might not be possible to ban athletes on short notice or for legal reasons. In those cases, the IOC strongly urged Russians and Belarusians “should be accepted only as neutral athletes or neutral teams.”

Many federations did bar Russia and Belarus athletes, including winter sports organizations such as the International Skiing Federation and the International Ice Hockey Federation. Those federations do not govern Paralympic sport.

The IPC’s member federations are not bound by the Olympic Charter nor the Olympic Truce, which calls for peace over a period from seven days before the Olympics through seven days after the Paralympics.

The IPC said Wednesday that it will schedule a vote later this year on whether to make compliance with the Olympic Truce a membership requirement. It will also vote on whether to suspend or bar the Russian and Belarusian Paralympic Committees.

The IPC also said it will not hold any events in Russia or Belarus until further notice.

Other National Paralympic Committees, including the U.S., Canada and Great Britain, urged — before Wednesday’s meeting — for Russia and Belarus athletes to be barred from the Games.

“While we can empathize with the difficulty of this decision and the IPC’s desire to protect the athletes’ rights to compete, we are disappointed in this outcome as it excuses Russia’s disregard for not only the Olympic truce, but also for the victims of a senseless war,” USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland wrote in a letter to the Team USA community in response to the IPC decision.

Due to the nation’s doping violations, Russian athletes were banned from the 2016 Rio Paralympics and competed as neutral athletes at the 2018 PyeongChang Games, then as the Russian Paralympic Committee at the Tokyo Games last year. They were due to compete as the RPC again this month before Wednesday’s decision.

Russians were third in total medals in 2018, trailing the U.S. and Canada, after winning the most medals in 2006, 2010 and 2014. In 2018, the U.S. won the most total medals and most gold medals at a Winter Paralympics for the first time since 1992.

At the 2018 Paralympics, Ukraine had the most combined medals in biathlon and cross-country skiing, just ahead of Russian athletes. Most of the times a Ukrainian won a medal in those sports, a Russian or a Belarusian was also on the podium. Three times, a Ukrainian, a Russian and a Belarusian made up the podium.

Russia also has medal history in sled hockey, taking silver at the 2014 Paralympics and bronze at the 2021 World Championship. Russians will still be allowed to make up a neutral-athlete hockey team at these Games.

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