Ukraine fencer assured of Olympic spot after penalty for handshake snub


A Ukrainian fencer has been assured by the Olympic authorities she can compete at next year’s Paris games after she was disqualified from a key ranking event for refusing to shake hands with a Russian she had beaten.

Olga Kharlan was told by the international organising body it would make a “unique exception” by allocating her a place in the competition.

The move follows controversy over the 32-year-old’s elimination at the world championships in Milan

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Kharlan left without shaking the hand of her opponent. Pic: AP

The incident between a four-time Olympic medallist and her Russian opponent – Anna Smirnova, who was competing as an approved neutral athlete – also cast doubt on hopes for athletes from the two countries to compete against each other against the backdrop of the Ukraine war triggered by Moscow’s invasion.

Kharlan comfortably beat Smirnova 15-7 in a first-round contest then refused a handshake, and instead pointed her sabre toward the Russian.

Touching blades was used as an alternative to handshakes at fencing competitions during the coronavirus pandemic but Smirnova stood facing Kharlan and did not raise her sabre.

Kharlan then turned and left the area and the Russian refused to leave for more than 50 minutes, sitting on a chair in an apparent protest over the snub.

Kharlan was later disqualified by the International Fencing Federation (FIE), which denied her the chance to earn more ranking points that feed into Olympic qualification.

Smirnova refused to leave after the bout in an apparent protest. Pic: AP

In response, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said sports bodies should show “sensitivity” on issues involving Ukrainians and neutral athletes from Russia – an apparent suggestion that the federation made an error.

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In a letter to Kharlan, IOC president Thomas Bach acknowledged the “roller coaster of emotions and feelings” she must have.

The 32-year-old is a four-time Olympic medallist. Pic: AP

Bach, who like Kharlan is a former Olympic champion in a fencing team event, added: “It is admirable how you are managing this incredibly difficult situation.”

The FIE subsequently softened its stance, saying it would allow Kharlan to compete for Ukraine in the upcoming team sabre event, but still defended the decision to punish her.

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Kharlan had faced a suspension from the rest of the world championships and from other events.

However, the FIE statement made no mention of allowing Ukrainians to avoid handshakes with Russian opponents in future, which could mean more disputes ahead of the Olympics.

Insisting it was right to punish Kharlan, it said: “The FIE stands fully behind the penalty, which, after a thorough review, is in complete accordance and compliance with its official rules and associated penalties.”

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