Athletes push for change in ban on Russians at Paralympic Games

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Athletes around the world cheered as Paralympic Games leaders kicked Russia out of the Games. This decision, in many ways, marked the culmination of a growing movement of people who really put on the show to find a bigger voice in the Olympic world.

“It’s because of the athletes,” said Ukrainian skeleton athlete Vladyslav Heraskevych, who lives about 100 miles from Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, fearing an attack from Russian troops who invaded the country earlier this week.

The tipping point of Thursday’s rapid turn of events was “a very, very unstable environment” in the Beijing athletes’ village at the Paralympic Games, according to the head of that organization.

The International Paralympic Committee has been faced with the very real possibility that athletes could simply pick up and go home before their Games start on Friday. To avoid this, he abruptly did an about-face and opted to ban Russian and Belarusian Paralympic teams which previously were allowed to compete under a neutral flag.

“We didn’t think whole delegations, or even teams within delegations, would pull out, boycott, not participate,” said IPC chairman Andrew Parsons.

Rob Koehler, the head of advocacy group Global Athlete, called the moment “a clear message to every athlete about the value and importance of their voice for change”.

Earlier this week, a group of Ukrainian athletes aligned with Koehler’s group to issue a statement condemning the Russian invasion and calling for the immediate banning of Russian and Belarusian athletes from the Olympics and Paralympics. The list of signatories to this letter grew from hour to hour. It encompassed several hundred athletes, adding those who put their names on the letter to those who were members of federations and athletes’ committees who also signed.

It could have been more, but as the letter poignantly puts it, “it was a challenge to speak with all of the Ukrainian athletes as they sought safety in bomb shelters.”

The International Olympic Committee reported that it had heard the message. He urged all federations to ban athletes from these countries from competing. Many have heeded this advice, including ice skating, skiing, soccer, hockey, basketball, and others.

But the Paralympics did not impose a ban, explaining that it would never hold up in court because of the settlement. The IOC, with the Olympics in the rearview mirror, also passed a ban itself.

The move shed a different light on a New York Times report that China had specifically asked Russia to suspend any invasion until after the Olympics. The countries are allies – their presidents held a summit the day after the opening ceremony and said their strategic partnership had “no limits”. It was no surprise that China didn’t want the start of a war to tarnish its massive sporting spectacle.

But the Paralympic Games bring more than 600 other athletes to Beijing to compete for 10 days of skiing, skating and luge. It is one of the largest gatherings of international athletes this side of the Olympics. The removal of Russia’s flag, without the removal of the country’s athletes, was, Parsons said, the “severest possible punishment we could inflict under our constitution and current IPC rules.”

These rules, however, have taken a step back from reality.

The Latvian and South Korean curling teams have said they will not take to the ice against Russia for a first-round match. Other athletes were considering leaving. The IPC could no longer ignore this possibility.

“It’s absolutely clear that it was the athletes who forced this decision, not the sports leadership,” said Ali Jawad, a four-time Paralympian who sits on the board of Global Athlete.

The idea of ​​leaving is the most drastic option for athletes who spend their lives training for a day or two of glory at the biggest spectacle in sport. For decades, no one voluntarily made this choice.

The idea of ​​competing in China, with its record of human rights abuses, was turning the stomachs of many Olympians. But they all chose to go, largely because they knew there was no groundswell that would follow them out the door. Boycotting on their own, they said, would make headlines for a day or two, but then the world would just move on.

The athletes posed a greater threat than the Paras. It was the latest and most striking show of power from a movement that has included victories in the fight against Olympic rules on marketing and demonstrations, a flap over women wearing bikini bottoms for beach handball , payment for female footballers and more.

“The list goes on and on, and it shows that when athletes say, ‘Things change, and they change today,’ it really can happen,” Koehler said.

Russia is likely to take this case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. CAS, the IOC, World Athletics, the World Anti-Doping Agency and dozens of others in this long “alphabet soup” of sports organizations have a long history of twisting the rules of international sport to make them say what that they want.

An example: while before the outbreak of war Russia remained largely eligible in most sports despite eight years of rule-breaking and cover-ups, it was still considered a rogue state in athletics.

She is also, for the moment, persona non grata at the Paralympics. The credit goes to a growing group of athletes who would accept no other option.

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