Ukraine’s Olha Kharlan was disqualified from the world fencing championships for refusing to shake hands with her beaten Russian opponent on Thursday in a decision blasted as “absolutely shameful”.
Kharlan, the first athlete officially representing Ukraine to face a Russian or Belarusian opponent since Moscow’s invasion of her country in February 2022, opted against shaking the hand of Anna Smirnova.
Instead, she offered a touch of her blade after the bout at the tournament in Milan.
“The decision [to disqualify] is the manifestation of a complete lack of empathy, misunderstanding of the emotional context and is absolutely shameful,” Ukraine presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak wrote on social media.
Kharlan outclassed Smirnova and was cheered on by around 20 members of the Ukrainian delegation chanting ‘Slava Ukraini’ (‘Glory to Ukraine’).
Smirnova, furious at the handshake snub as well as her defeat, refused to leave the arena and sat on a chair for an hour in protest.
The rules of the international federation state that “the two fencers must shake hands once the result is given.”
“My message today is that we Ukrainian athletes are ready to face Russians on the sports field but we will never shake hands with them,” four-time world champion Kharlan told several journalists, including a reporter from AFP.
She claimed that Emmanuel Katsiadakis, the Greek president of the International Fencing Federation, had assured her that it was “possible” not to shake hands and offer a touch of her blade instead.
“I thought I had his word, to be safe, but apparently, no,” Kharlan said of Katsiadakis who succeeded Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov as head of the ruling body in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The Ukrainian fencing federation demanded Kharlan be reinstated.
“We have already submitted our protest to the Bureau of the International Fencing Federation,” the President of Ukraine’s Fencing Federation Mykhaylo Ilyashev told journalists.
“We are waiting for the immediate consideration of this protest, so that this disqualification is cancelled and Olha can take part in team competitions.”
Four-time sabre world champion Kharlan had told AFP in a recent interview that she would not shake hands with a Russian rival.
Kharlan, 32, had only been given the green light to compete at 6.00 am GMT on Thursday, hours after the Ukraine sports ministry changed its previous policy of barring athletes from facing Russians or Belarusians competing as neutrals.
Under the new policy, Ukrainians cannot face athletes who “represent the Russian Federation and Belarus”.
Smirnova was competing as a neutral.
Ukrainian tennis players have been playing Russians and Belarusians since the invasion, but as individuals not representing their country. They too have avoided shaking hands.
“They are right not to shake hands, I cannot imagine a scenario where I would,” Kharlan told AFP.
“We have different fronts, we also have sport which is about the fight and the struggle.”
The change of tack by the Ukrainian sports ministry reduced the chances of a boycott of the Paris Olympics next year.
That new ruling came too late for Igor Reizlin, who withdrew from his bout against a Russian on Wednesday.
Kharlan was livid with the IOC and the FIE for permitting Russians and Belarusians to compete again, albeit as neutrals. Fencing was the first sport to open their doors in March.
“How are Ukrainian athletes meant to feel when the IOC should be on our side and delivering justice but in fact they are doing things totally against us?” she said in an AFP interview earlier this month.
She expressed doubts about Ukraine’s policy of barring athletes from events where Russians and Belarusians were competing.
Ukraine’s judokas were pulled out of the world championships earlier this year because Russians and Belarusians were present.
The IOC is yet to make a final decision over allowing Russians and Belarusians to compete in the Paris Olympics. That leaves open a potential change of mind by Ukraine over a boycott.
“We have not yet taken a decision regarding the Olympics,” Vadym Gutzeit, Ukrainian Sports Minister and a former Olympic fencing gold medallist himself, told Le Monde newspaper on Tuesday.
“We await the final decision to see if (the Russians and Belarusians) will be given the green light to compete or not.”
On Thursday, the IOC said they were encouraging “international federations to handle situations involving Ukrainian and individual neutral athletes with the necessary degree of sensitivity”.
They added in a statement: “We continue to stand in full solidarity with the Ukrainian athletes and the Olympic community of Ukraine.”