Russian and Belarusian athletes were on Thursday banned from the Beijing Winter Paralympics over the war in Ukraine, with organisers bowing to international pressure and threats of a boycott.
The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) had just a day earlier said athletes from the two countries would be allowed to compete as “neutrals” in the Games, which start on Friday.
It said that was the “harshest punishment” the IPC could dish out under its rules.
But organisers reversed that decision less than 24 hours later, meaning 83 athletes from Russia and Belarus, which hosted troops for Moscow’s attack, will now be packing their bags and heading home.
“In order to preserve the integrity of these Games and the safety of all participants, we have decided to refuse the athlete entries from RPC and NPC Belarus,” the IPC said in a statement.
“To the 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,” IPC President Andrew Parsons told reporters.
“You are victims of your governments’ actions.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov swiftly condemned the 11th-hour decision to impose the ban.
“This is a monstrous situation, it’s a shame,” he said.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) earlier this week urged sporting federations across the world to exclude athletes from the two countries.
Multiple Paralympics committees around the world, teams and athletes had threatened not to compete if the Russian and Belarusian athletes were present, which was “jeopardising the viability” of the Games, organisers said.
“Ensuring the safety and security of athletes is of paramount importance to us and the situation in the athlete villages is escalating and has now become untenable,” the IPC said in a statement.
Countries including Britain, Ireland and Germany welcomed the ban and said athletes could now focus on competition.
“Given the horror of what is happening in Ukraine, we believe (the IPC) have made the correct decision for these Games and is in line with the values of the Paralympic movement,” Team Great Britain said.
Ukraine Paralympic Committee President Valeriy Sushkevych said his team — who arrived in Beijing Wednesday — had been overwhelmed by the solidarity shown by other nations.
He said many team members had difficulties escaping bombings on their journey out of Ukraine.
“This is a miracle that we managed to be here at the Paralympic Games,” he told reporters in Beijing.
“We came with a primary objective. We are here to defend our country with the whole sporting community,” he said.
IPC president Parsons said he expects Belarus and Russia to take legal action against the ban.
“I hope and pray that we can get back to a situation when the talk and focus is fully on the power of sport to transform the lives of persons with disabilities, and the best of humanity,” he added.
The previous decision to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete had drawn a swift and international backlash on Wednesday.
Germany’s top Paralympic official had criticised the move as lacking courage and told AFP it was “a dark day for the Paralympic movement”.
The athletes from Ukraine arrived safely in Beijing as the United Nations said the number of refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries had topped one million.
Ukrainian biathlon team members were preparing for competition in China’s Zhangjiakou on Thursday — hitting the slopes for skiing and shooting training.
The Eastern European country has punched above its weight in previous Paralympic winter events, with frequent podium finishes in the biathlon and ski competitions.
The delegation took home 22 medals in 2018 — including seven golds — gaining the sixth spot on the world tally.
For some of the team, the emotional rollercoaster and disrupted focus at this Paralympics will be a case of deja vu.
During Russia’s hosting of the Winter Paralympics in 2014, Ukrainian athletes had to grapple with Moscow’s takeover of the Crimea peninsula.