BEIJING — A day after Paralympic Winter Games organizers announced they would allow athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete, the organization’s board made a stunning reversal and banned athletes from the two countries on the eve of the opening ceremony.
Citing threats from several countries to boycott the Games, growing discontent in the athletes’ village and fears that a “deterioration” of the situation could lead to violence, the International Paralympic Committee said the situation had changed so much from overnight that the viability of the Games would be in danger if the organizers did not expel the Russian and Belarusian athletes.
“The environment in the village is deteriorating,” said IPC chairman Andrew Parsons. He said growing anger and threats from several National Committees, some under pressure from their governments, to pull out of the Games had made the situation “untenable”.
Parsons said there had been no reports of any clashes or violence between athletes, but tensions were rising and he said there was “enormous” concern for the safety of participants.
“The village is not the place for the fighting,” Parsons said.
The move made the Paralympic Games the latest international sports organization to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes and teams following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which was staged with Belarusian support. Sports such as football, tennis and figure skating have already banned Russian and Belarusian athletes since the International Olympic Committee took the extraordinary step this week to suggest global federations and event organizers implement a ban. of athletes from both countries because of their action in Ukraine.
The Russian and Belarusian Paralympic delegations – whose athletes had been allowed to compete as neutrals only a day earlier – could appeal the decision in court. But the Games should hold their opening ceremony on Friday and their first events on Saturday.
On Wednesday, Parsons had said the IPC could not remove Russian and Belarusian athletes because there was no specific mechanism to do so in the organization’s constitution.
“Athletes here, who were born in this country, are not the abusers,” he said at the time. “I think we have to treat them with the same respect as athletes from any other nation who have earned the qualification to be here.”
The board meeting that led to the decision was “very tense and emotional”, and the vote not to punish Russia and Belarus more harshly was not unanimous.
But after his announcement, Parsons said Thursday, an overwhelming number of members reached out and urged the IPC to reconsider. Ukrainian athletes issued a statement expressing their disapproval, saying the sports administrators’ claims of “political neutrality” were “a practical lie used to deflect calls to defend human rights and peace”.
“We want to stop the wars in Ukraine,” said Valerii Sushkevich, a member of Ukraine’s parliament and chairman of the national Paralympic committee. “We must work together against war, work together for world peace.”
Other countries have also contacted Paralympic Games organizers and expressed “their intention not to compete” if they did not reverse the decision, Parsons said.
“At the IPC, we firmly believe that sport and politics should not mix,” he added. “However, it is not his fault, war has now come to these Games, and behind the scenes many governments have influence over our cherished event.
“The IPC is a membership-based organization,” he said, “and we are receptive to the views of our member organizations.”
This pressure, he acknowledged, had forced the hand of the committee. But in expressing his personal grief to the athletes affected, he squarely blamed “the decisions of your governments”.
“You are victims of the actions of your governments,” he said.
Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.