Ukrainian fencer Olga Kharlan was reinstated by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) after being disqualified from the 2023 Fencing World Championships for refusing to shake hands with her Russian opponent. The IOC said it made the decision “in light of the unique circumstances” of the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia.
Fencing isn’t a sport that many Americans are familiar with, but it is very popular in France, Italy, and Eastern Europe.
Thursday, Ukrainian saber fencer Olga Kharlan faced off against a Russian fencing as a “neutral” competitor in the World Fencing Championship in Milan. The Russian, Anna Smirnova, was fencing as a “neutral” because the IOC has banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing as national teams due to Putin’s War in Ukraine; see Putin’s War, Week 73. Putin Eludes Arrest, Black Sea Grain Initiative Dies, and Ukraine’s Offense Continues to Grind Away. The match nearly didn’t happen. It wasn’t until Wednesday night that the Ukraine Sports Ministry permitted Ukrainian athletes to compete against Russian or Belarusians even if they were billed as “neutrals.”
Let me digress here for a second. I was a competitive epee fencer for about 15 years and was good enough to get a national ranking, and I’ll be the first to admit that saber fencing isn’t my thing. It always reminded me more of a couple of guys with radio antennas they’d broken off cars having at it in some parking lot outside a dive bar in Columbus, GA, than a sport.
Compare and contrast the styles.
Getting back to the subject.
Kharlan faced Smirnova and won handily 15-7. When the bout ended, Smirnova tried to shake hands with Kharlan. Kharlan was willing to touch swords but not shake hands. Smirnova refused to leave the piste for 45 minutes. This is the entire episode. I have it cued up to the last point so you can see how the match ended.
The officials at the World Championship disqualified her because, under International Fencing Federation (FIE) rules, competitors must shake hands with their opponents. The consequences of the disqualification would mean that Kharlan would not qualify for the 2024 Olympics. She would also be banned from competing in the team championships.
Faced with a public outcry over disqualifying a Ukrainian fencer for refusing to shake hands with a Russian competitor, the IOC started to back-peddle. Kharlan received automatic qualification for a spot in the 2024 Olympics.
Olga Kharlan received automatic qualification for the 2024 Olympics 💪🏻
This happened after the outraging scandal with the disqualification of the Ukrainian fencer at the World Championship. pic.twitter.com/B6WKQNMuSM
— Saint Javelin (@saintjavelin) July 28, 2023
Today, the IOC rescinded the disqualification. The FIE is looking into modifying its handshake rule so competitors won’t have to shake hands with someone from a nation who is invading their homeland.
The Russians were not happy.
The head of Russia’s Olympic Committee on Friday accused the IOC of picking sides on the issue. “The statement in question indicates that the IOC determined for itself and picked a side in the political conflict, [and] began to act in the interests of this side,” wrote Stanislav Pozdnyakov on the messaging service Telegram.
Pozdnyakov railed against the “duplicity” of the IOC and continued by writing: “Now we have been involuntarily but clearly shown the attitude which absolutely any Russian will face at international competitions.”
It’s a shame when sports get dragged into politics, but the reality is that international sporting events are just another battlefield. During the Cold War, the Olympics were a surrogate for the conflict between East and West. Arguably, some of the first transgender athletes to compete were those engineered by the East Germans. In the aftermath of the bloody suppression of the Hungarian Uprising by the Red Army; Hungary and the USSR faced off in a water polo match in the 1956 Olympics. It became known as the “blood in the water match.”
There were a lot of wrongs here.
The rules of the competition are the rules, and while I admire Kharlan’s being true to principle even when it would mean missing her final Olympics, the officials had no choice but to disqualify her. After reviewing the fact, the IOC and the FIE made the right decision, but one wonders why they couldn’t have seen this coming. And we can’t forget that this controversy was also contrived. The Russian could have touched swords as offered or accepted the brush-off and walked away. Instead, we were treated with a 45-minute metaphor for Russian behavior throughout the world: when you don’t get what you want, throw a tantrum and play the victim.