The International Paralympic Committee is to allow Russian athletes to compete at the Winter Games this week, despite a global outcry after the invasion of Ukraine.
An emergency meeting of the IPC’s executive committee on Wednesday determined that 72 Russian athletes would be allowed to take part in Beijing as “neutral” competitors. The decision was strongly criticised by both the UK government and ParalympicsGB, with the possibility of a British boycott of the Games not ruled out.
Russians will compete using the name of the Russian Paralympic Committee (RPC) and under the flag of the IPC, two sanctions that were already in place as punishments for the preceding Russian doping scandal. In a new sanction, however, their results will not be counted in the medal table either. A similar range of punishments will apply to athletes from Belarus.
Wednesday’s decision was not unexpected and is compliant with directions given by the International Olympic Committee earlier this week. The president of the IPC, Andrew Parsons, said it was “the harshest possible punishment we can hand down within our constitution and the current IPC rules”. Parsons also said the IPC would hold another summit after the games to decide whether to change the body’s rules.
Criticism immediately followed, however, with the group Athletes of Ukraine suggesting the IPC was “choosing bloodshed and profits over principle and stakeholders”. Criticism also came from the Olympic and Paralympic Committee of the United States, who said : “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.”
The British government was vocal in its criticism. The culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, called on the IPC to “urgently reconsider” the decision, while the prime minister’s official spokesperson said the governing body “should join the rest of the world in condemning this barbaric invasion by banning Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing”.
Number 10 said it would be in discussion with ParalympicsGB and would “consider all options”, including a boycott of the Games. That was echoed by a statement from the association itself.
“We, like many participating Paralympic nations, already stated that given the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine we cannot see how the participation of Russia or Belarus in the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games is compatible with the objectives of the Paralympic movement”, ParalympicsGB said. “We’ll be consulting further and reflecting on the implications for ParalympicsGB before making further comment.”
On Monday the IOC called for sporting organisations to ban Russian athletes and officials from events, but left the option of neutrality available where expulsion was “not possible on short notice for organisational or legal reasons”. This exception, the IOC said, was explicitly designed with the Winter Paralympic Games in mind and the IOC “reiterated its full support for the International Paralympic Committee and the Games”.
Parsons said the IPC board was “greatly concerned” by the invasion of Ukraine and was “in agreement that they cannot go unnoticed or unaddressed”, but that actions were constrained by a constitution that states the IPC remains politically neutral.
“Such neutrality is firmly anchored in the genuine belief that sport holds the transformative power to overcome our shortcomings, and summon from within us the best of our humanity, especially in the darkest of moments,” he said.
“Now that this decision has been made, I expect all participating NPCs 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.”