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Why was a Ukrainian fencer punished for not shaking a Russian’s hand?

Credit: Getty Images

Must politics stay separate from sport? Ukrainian fencer Olha Kharlan has been disqualified from the World Fencing Championships in Milan after declining to shake hands with her Russian opponent having won the match yesterday. As it concluded, both athletes removed their masks and Anna Smirnova (who competed under a neutral flag) extended her hand. Kharlan responded by presenting her sword as if suggesting they touch sabres instead. Smirnova did not react. 

Kharlan left the stage. Smirnova stood there for almost an hour, waiting for a handshake. Afterwards, Smirnova filed a complaint for lack of ‘show of respect’. The Ukrainian fencer was disqualified from the competition and suspended for 60 days from all further tournaments.

‘No one can ever be forced into peace…by any handshake,’ Kharlan said after the tournament. ‘We know that the country that terrorises our state, our people, our families, also terrorises sport.’

Her stance is common for Ukrainian athletes since last year’s full-scale invasion and was well supported at home: shaking hands with Russians literally damages your reputation in Ukraine. Yes, some Russians oppose Vladimir Putin’s regime and the war – but Smirnova does not appear to be one of them. After the row, social media was awash with photos of her wearing a Russian military hat and hugging a soldier, believed to be her brother. 

Ukrainian officials called for a boycott of all competitions including athletes from Russia and Belarus in March. While there were only a few such events at the time, things changed during the summer when world tournaments began actively inviting Russian and Belarusian athletes back to participate under a neutral flag. Kyiv had a choice: keep Ukrainian athletes on the bench forever, or let them compete. So, two days before Kharlan’s tournament, the ban was lifted. But the neutral flag is hardly convincing: no one was in any doubt, watching the final, that this was a Ukrainian vs a Russian. 

The fencing tension could be a taste of what’s to come

Kyiv warned the International Fencing Federation that its athletes would refuse to shake hands with Russian competitors.

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