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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IOC looks for ways for Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ to compete as neutrals

Thomas Bach

GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas

If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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