BEIJING – Organizers of the Beijing Winter Paralympics will allow athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete when the Games open this week, despite mounting pressure to exclude Russia and its teams from global sports as punishment for its invasion of Ukraine.
The executive board of the International Paralympic Committee, which organizes the Games, declared that the Russian and Belarusian athletes would compete as neutrals and any medals they won would not be counted in the Games’ medal table. The affected athletes instead will compete under the Paralympic flag, and were ordered to cover any flags or logos identifying their countries that appear on their uniforms.
But the board declined to take more significant action during a meeting in Beijing on Wednesday, citing a lack of legal grounds to punish the Russian and Belarusian delegations for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Belarus faces the same penalties because it provided support for the invasion.
The punishments are similar to those already in place against Russia for its involvement in a state-sponsored doping scheme that corrupted the results of several previous Olympic Games. At the recent Winter Olympics in Beijing, Russian athletes competed under the banner of the Russian Olympic committee. At the Paralympics, they were to compete as representatives of the Russian Paralympic committee.
In a statement explaining its decision, the International Paralympic Committee board condemned the invasion as a breach of the Olympic Truce, which runs until March 21, but it said Russia and Belarus had not broken any specific Olympic rules, and added, “It is currently not a membership obligation for an IPC member to ensure compliance with the Olympic Truce. ”
The IPC’s decision was more measured than a wave of declarations over the past several days, when numerous international sports organizations – from soccer to auto racing to tennis to figure skating – responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by excluding Russian and Belarusian athletes from events around the world. Teams, leagues and organizations also have withdrawn events from Russia, or severed ties with Russian sponsors.
But many of those events are weeks or months away. The Paralympics will open on Friday and hold its first competitions on Saturday. Most of the 71 Russian athletes competing in 61 medal events are already in Beijing.
Friday’s opening ceremony now could be a stage for athlete protests, and the presence of the Russians in all the competitive events could generate discord and controversy, with some speculation that athletes from other countries could protest or refuse to compete.
Many top Russian athletes are expected to compete for medals, including the Nordic skiers Nikolay Polukhin and Ekaterina Rumyantseva, who have each won three gold medals at previous Paralympics. Alexey Bugaev, an Alpine skier, and the 17-member Russian sled hockey team, led by its goalie and captain Andrey Kasatkin, are also strong contenders to win medals.
Some, like Bugaev, who was on the slopes Wednesday in nearby Yanqing, have already begun training.
Meanwhile, a delegation of 20 Ukrainian athletes arrived in Beijing on Wednesday, the IPC said. In an open letter, they had called for the Russian and Belarusian teams and athletes to be expelled from the Paralympics. Ukraine’s team is dominated by biathletes and cross-country skiers, sports where they can expect to face off against Russians in almost every event.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, supported by Belarus, is a clear breach of the Olympic and Paralympic Charters – a breach that must be met with strong sanctions,” the statement, which was published in Global Athlete, said. “If the IOC and IPC refuse to take swift action, you are clearly emboldening [this] violation of international law and your own Charters.
“Your lack of action will send a message to every athlete and the world that you have chosen Russia and Belarus over athlete interests. Your legacy will be defined by your actions. ”
The IPC also announced that no events would be held in Russia or Belarus until further notice.
Tariq Panja contributed reporting from London.