Confronted with hazards of withdrawals and growing acrimony in the Athletes Village, organizers of the Winter Paralympics on Thursday inverted the system and removed athletes from Russia and Belarus.
The about-face came less than 24 hours after the International Paralympic Committee declared it would allow Russians and Belarusians to compete when the Games open on Friday, but only as impartial athletes with colors, flags, and other national symbols dismissed because of the attack of Ukraine.
The Paralympics in Beijing, which follow the Winter Olympics, will close on March 13.
“The war has now come to these Games, and behind the scenes, many governments are influencing our cherished event,” IPC President Andrew Parsons said Thursday after announcing the ban.
“We were trying to protect the Games from war,” Parsons said the IPC minimized the negative response to allowing Russians and Belarusians to compete — even as impartial athletes. The Athletes Village, which Parsons expected would be a place of peace, is now described as a tinderbox.
And it was not only Ukrainians resenting the Russian and Belarusian participation but across the board.
“We don’t have reports of any specific incidents of aggression or anything like that, But it was a very, very volatile environment in the (Athletes) Village,” Parsons said.
“It was a very rapid escalation which we did not think was going to happen. We did not think that entire delegation, or even teams within delegations, will withdraw, will boycott, will not participate,” he added.
The first example came when Latvia said its curlers would decline to play against the Russians in a planned group game.
IPC spokesman Craig Spence conveyed a stark change in just over 12 hours from athletes, administrators, and politicians.
“Now we’re thinking of going home. We’re not playing, that threatens the viability of this event. So that’s a huge change, the atmosphere in the Village is not pleasant.” Spence said.
Parsons said he hopes lawful action from the Russian and Belarusian Paralympic committees, which is what he said he worried about on Wednesday when he ruled their athletes could compete. The possible place is the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport.
“We do believe that the Russian Paralympic Committee and the Belarussian Paralympic Committee may take legal action, But the facts that we express here led us to understand that this was the right decision to be taking”, Parsons said.
The Russian Paralympic Committee called the decision to remove its athletes “unfounded” and “illegal.”
“(Russian athletes) have not done anything which could be interpreted as being involved in the current political complications,” the RPC said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also criticized the decision, calling it a “disgrace.” “The situation is monstrous, Yesterday one decision was taken and today they took another,” Peskov said.
Parsons said he understands the dismay of the 71 Russians and 12 Belarusians who are sent home. He said he did not know how fast that would ensue, especially with extreme COVID-19 regulations in place in China.
“No one is happy with the decision but certainly this is the best decision for the Paralympic Games to go ahead,” Parsons said.
The IPC now joins sports like soccer, track, basketball, hockey, and others which have charged blanket bans on Russians and Belarussians.
On Monday, The International Olympic Committee forced sports organizations to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from international events, the final decision is to be made by the respective governing bodies.
The IOC has been slow to break down on Russia, letting its athletes contest in the last four Olympics following a state-sponsored doping disgrace and coverup at the 2014 Sochi Games. The IOC also has not released the membership or leadership positions from Russians in its organization.
Parsons also managed the Russian and Belarusian athletes directly, saying they are not at fault.
“To Para athletes from the impacted countries, we are very sorry that you are affected by the decisions your governments took last week in breaching the Olympic Truce, You are victims of your governments’ actions”, Parsons said.