It was a first, but it was not a success. Since the invasion of Russia in Ukraine in February 2022, there had been no more opposition between athletes from the two countries, except in tennis, where the players are not part of an official delegation. The situation changed at the Fencing Worlds, where Ukrainian saber Olga Kharlan faced Russian Anna Smirnova in the 32nd round on Thursday. With, in the key, a victory in the key (15-7). But the winner was eventually disqualified for not shaking hands with her opponent. One more heresy in a sport that handles this problem particularly badly.
Let’s rewind! Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine almost 18 months ago, Russian (and Belarusian) athletes were initially shut out of the world of sport. The situation then changed when several international federations, the fencing one in the lead, decided to reinstate the banned athletes. The Ukrainian Fencing Federation then threatened to boycott the competitions, which prompted the FIE to accept the return of the Russian and Belarusian representatives only on an individual basis and under a neutral banner.
“Slava Ukraini” punctuated the fight
Despite this decision, a decree from the Ukrainian Sports Ministry prohibited athletes from its official delegations from competing against Russians or Belarusians. The Ukrainian swordsman Igor Riezlin, who was also to face a Russian at the Worlds, had also not been able to enter the track. But on Wednesday, this decree was slightly modified to allow Olga Kharlan to compete in the competition, she who is Olympic champion and six-time world champion. From now on, it only prohibits clashes against “athletes representing the Russian Federation or the Republic of Belarus”. The fencers being under a neutral banner, there were no more problems.
This first duel therefore had a special flavor. In the convention center of Milan, this tension was felt. About twenty members of the Ukrainian delegation were there to give voice and multiply the “Slava Ukraini” (“Glory to Ukraine”). An atmosphere that pushed their compatriot to an easy victory, 15-7. Finally at first.
Because after her final touch, Olga Kharlan was content with a protocol salute to the referee, avoiding making one to her opponent. And rather than shaking his hand, she presented her saber so that the blades clash, a gesture that was common in the weapons rooms at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. A refusal that prompted the Russian to protest and stay on the track for almost an hour after the match. And she finally won her case, the Ukrainian being finally disqualified for her gesture. This surprised the main interested party, who had spoken of this potential handshake with the president of the FIE, but also the French saber fencer Manon Apithy-Brunet. “We had to put clear rules before. In the end, I think the Russian got what she wanted, ”she reacted to the microphone of France Inter.
“We will never shake hands with them”
The International Fencing Federation did not wish to comment on this decision, but nevertheless noted that there was a point of settlement on this issue. Indeed, article T122 stipulates that it is necessary to “shake the opponent’s hand when the last touch has been made”, which was not done. An extremely harsh decision all the same, especially given the sensitivity of the issue and the exceptional nature of this first confrontation between athletes from the two countries. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) also called on Thursday to show “sensitivity” towards Ukrainian athletes.
Despite her disqualification, which could compromise her qualification for the Olympic Games and that of the Ukrainian saber team, Olga Kharlan assured not to regret her gesture. “My message today is that we Ukrainian athletes are ready to face the Russians on the sports fields or on the tracks but we will never shake hands with them, assured the Ukrainian at the end of his fight. They will never force us to peace. That’s what they’re doing right now in my country, they’re forcing us to lay down our arms and make peace. We will never make peace. We can face them with respect on the track but we will never shake hands with them. »
We are now waiting to know what the consequences of this event will be. By modifying its decree, Ukraine had slightly opened the door to its athletes for the Paris Olympics since they would have been authorized to face Russians and Belarusians under a neutral banner. But this new incident could still change the game.