Ukraine has signaled it will no longer bar its athletes from competing against Russians who are taking part in sporting events as “neutral athletes,” a significant easing of its boycott policy a year before the Paris Olympics.
A decree dated Wednesday says Ukrainian athletes and teams will only be required to boycott if competitors from Russia or Belarus are competing under their national flags or other symbols, or have signaled allegiance to either of those countries in another way.
The change in policy could smooth the way for Ukrainians to compete at next year’s Paris Olympics. Ukrainian athletes previously boycotted events which allowed Russians and Belarusians as “Individual Neutral Athletes,” the preferred term of the International Olympic Committee.
It wasn’t immediately clear how the decree would be implemented in practice, but at least one leading Ukrainian athlete competed against a “neutral” Russian competitor on Thursday.
Olympic champion Olga Kharlan competed against officially-neutral Russian opponent Anna Smirnova at the world fencing championships — an Olympic qualifier — on Thursday in Milan, Italy, winning their bout 15-7. However, Smirnova refused to leave after the bout in an apparent protest because Kharlan refused to shake hands at the end.
The IOC favors allowing Russians and Belarusians to compete as “neutral athletes” without national symbols in Olympic qualifying events. The governing bodies of most Olympic sports have either adopted the IOC policy already or are working on plans to do so.
The IOC still recommends barring Russia and Belarus from team sports and excluding athletes who are contracted to the military or security forces.
The IOC says it has not taken a final decision on allowing “neutral” Russian and Belarusian athletes at next year’s Paris Olympics.
Ukraine had previously objected strongly to the policy, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy saying in January that “any neutral flag of Russian athletes is stained with blood.”
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