Athletes from Russia and Belarus were given the green light on Wednesday to compete in the Winter Paralympics, which kicks off this week in the shadow of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has urged sports federations around the world to exclude athletes from Belarus, as well as Russia, which hosted troops before the invasion.
But on Wednesday, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) held a meeting and issued a brief statement saying that athletes from both countries would be allowed to compete “neutrally”.
“They will be competing under the Paralympic banner and will not be included in the medal table,” the committee said.
Much of the sports world reacted in solidarity with Ukraine.
FIFA expelled Russia from the 2022 World Cup, while rugby’s world governing body banned Russia and Belarus from all international events “until further notice”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, a successful judoka, was also dismissed as honorary president of the International Judo Federation.
Ukraine team on the way
With civil airspace closed, half a million refugees fleeing to neighboring countries, and Russian troops approaching Kiev, getting Ukrainian Paralympic athletes to Beijing can be logistically difficult.
IPC chief Andrew Parsons said last week it would be a “huge challenge” and declined to comment further for security reasons.
But on Tuesday evening, the National Sports Committee for the Disabled of Ukraine confirmed that its full team, consisting of 20 athletes and nine guides, went to the Games.
“Hopefully we’ll be in Beijing tomorrow, March 2,” said Natalia Garach, the team’s communications manager.
The small Eastern European country has risen above its weight in previous winter Paralympic events, with frequent podium finishes in biathlon and ski events.
The delegation won 22 medals, including seven gold medals in 2018, placing it in sixth place in the world rankings.
For some team members, the emotional roller coaster and disturbed concentration will be a case of deja vu.
During Russia’s hosting of the Paralympic Winter Games in 2014, Ukrainian athletes had to contend with Moscow’s takeover of the Crimean peninsula.
“A positive legacy”
The sporting event kicks off on Saturday, where more than 650 athletes from 49 countries compete in 78 events in six sports: ice hockey, snowboarding, biathlon, cross-country skiing, alpine skiing and wheelchair curling.
As with last month’s Olympics, events will take place in a rigid coronavirus bubble and ticket sales to the public have been suspended – though carefully selected spectators sitting social distancing will watch some venues.
At last month’s Winter Olympics, Beijing narrowly beat the United States to a record nine gold medals.
China has consistently placed first in the medal standings at the last Summer Paralympic Games.
But her first medal at the Paralympic Winter Games didn’t arrive until 2018 – a gold medal in wheelchair curling – and she hopes her biggest team of 96 athletes will take more podiums this year.
Chinese social welfare expert Xiaoyuan Shang said hosting the Paralympics this year will build on the “positive legacy” left over from when the Games were last held in China.
This includes “making people with disabilities more self-confident, reducing discrimination and stigma against people with disabilities in China, improving accessible facilities in cities, and changing social attitudes.” AFP.
More than 13,000 dedicated fitness centers have been opened for people with disabilities in recent years, according to the Chinese Federation of the Disabled.
China has also launched an accessibility campaign since November 2019, by installing wheelchair ramps, tactile surfaces for the visually impaired, and improving access to public transport.
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