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Athletes From Russia and Belarus Banned From Paralympic Games After Boycott Threat

Widespread pressure from other athletes forced the International Paralympic Committee to reverse course from its decision earlier this week.

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Escalating tensions in Olympic Village and threats by athletes from other nations to drop out of the Games is what prompted the International Paralympic Committee to reverse its Wednesday decision to allow the neutral coalitions of athletes to compete. The new edict, which came down on Thursday ahead of today’s Opening Ceremony, affects 83 athletes, including skiers across the Alpine, Freestyle, Nordic, and Biathlon events.

Ukraine Paralympic athletes
Ukraine biathletes get some training in at Zhangjiakou National Biathlon Centre in the run up to the 2022 Paralympic Games. Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

Just a week ago the International Olympic Committee recommended moving all events out of Russia and Belarus and to stop using their flags or anthems, and things have snowballed from there. Competitions in sports from hockey and auto racing to water polo and diving have been pulled from the region. This is after Russia invaded Ukraine just four days after the 2022 Beijing Closing Ceremonies, violating the Olympic truce. Belarus, a Russian neighbor and ally, allowed troops to enter Ukraine from its borders. Interesting side note: This was Russia’s third breach of the Olympic Truce in the last 15 years; the first was an invasion of Georgia during the 2008 Summer Olympics (also in Beijing) and the second was when they annexed Crimea right after the 2014 Sochi Winter Games ended.)

“In the last 12 hours an overwhelming number of members have been in touch with us and been very open,” said IPC President Andrew Parsons explaining the about-face. “They have told us that if we do not reconsider our decision, it is now likely to have grave consequences for the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games. With this in mind, and 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.”

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After the news broke midday on Thursday, Russian officials initially vowed to overturn the ban, but decided to leave peacefully. There is currently no plan to appeal, but Russian sports minister Oleg Matytsin called the ban “discrimination of athletes based on their ethnicity” and claimed  that the IPC is using sports as a tool of a political pressure.

“[The] decision of the International Paralympic Committee to bar our team is a blatant violation of athletes’ rights and a manipulation of the Olympic Charter and human lives’ values in pursuit of political goals,” Matytsin said

The controversial news has been met largely with global support, as well as some sympathy for the affected athletes who are caught in the middle of a conflict not of their own making. Belarusian Nordic skier and biathlete Yory Holub, who won gold, two silvers, and a bronze in Pyeongchang four years ago and was a favorite in Beijing, expressed confusion and disappointment over the decision.

“I’m not very experienced in different political affairs but I would like to say that I am against the war because there is nothing good in war,” the visually-impaired skier told the London-based Mirror. “But I really hoped that, well, sport is something which unites people and we hoped that perhaps at these Games, the participation of different athletes will make the peace a little bit nearer to us but unfortunately it didn’t happen.”

The banned athletes are heading home from Beijing as today’s Opening Ceremony signals the start of the games. At the ceremony, Parsons could not have been clearer about his stance on the issue. 

“The Olympic Truce for peace during the Olympic and Paralympic Games is a UN resolution. It must be respected and observed, not violated,” he said. “At the IPC we aspire to a better and more inclusive growth, free from discrimination, free from hate, free from ignorance, and free from conflict.” 

The Paralympic Games run through March 13, and can be watched on all of the NBC apps, including Peacock and NBC Sports; select events will be live-streamed at NBCOlympics.com. NBC will also be airing primetime coverage of the Paralympics for the first time ever.