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Fencing to allow Russians and Belarusians back in

March 12, 2023

The vote by world fencing's governing body follows the recommendations of the International Olympic Committee. But one of Germany's top fencers has criticized the decision.

Sport | Fechten | Lea Krüger
Until now, only judo had re-admitted Russian and Belarusian athletesImage: Kohring/ Eibner-Pressefoto/picture alliance

The International Fencing Federation (FIE) has voted to overturn a ban on Russian and Belarusian fencers competing in its events, paving the way for them to qualify for next year's Paris Olympics.

The decision, following a ballot of FIE members at an extraordinary congress meeting, makes fencing just the second Olympic sport after judo to follow the recommendations of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). In January, the IOC said it was exploring a "pathway" for athletes from Russia and its ally Belarus to compete as neutrals in Paris, without their flags or anthems.

The IOC cites athletes' human rights, saying no athlete should be discriminated against because of their passport. But many countries have condemned the organization's plans as being premature when Russia's war in Ukraine is still raging.

In an interview with DW, Lea Krüger, a German national team fencer, expressed her misgivings about the FIE's decision.

"I was completely disappointed by the federation and by the sports system in general," she said. "Nobody ever cares about the athletes. None of these organizations take responsibility for their decisions. And now we have the situation where I will be on the piste [the strip on which fencers compete] with a Russian athlete, and I have to decide how to act. In the end it's on us, the athletes, to take responsibility for something we never decided. It's a mess."

What is neutrality?

The FIE didn't publish any information about its decision, but Britain's fencing federation wrote on its website that the vote had passed by a majority of two to one. It quoted the FIE as saying that the participation of Russian and Belarusian fencers from mid-April would be "subject to possible future IOC recommendations/decisions, and in compliance with conditions of neutrality and individual eligibility."

However, Paris hopeful Krüger says both the FIE and the IOC have failed to define what neutrality actually means, and how it can be guaranteed.

Lea Krüger smiles
Olympic hopeful Lea Krüger would be uncomfortable competing against RussiansImage: Kohring/ Eibner-Pressefoto/picture alliance

"The neutrality we had in previous years with Russia [during the country's doping bans] was not a clear neutrality," she said. "There have to be stronger rules. The IOC has to show now how real neutrality can work."

Ukraine is among a group of countries, including Poland and the Baltic states, to have threatened a boycott if Russians and Belarusians are allowed in Paris. In a sport like fencing, where athletes compete at close quarters, Ukrainians could come face to face with Russians who have direct links to the military, such as being members of the army club, CSKA Moscow.

"What about the Ukrainian athletes? How will they react in competitions, how will they deal with this situation?" Krüger asked. "They are completely alone now."

Russian influence on fencing

Until last year, the FIE's president and main donor was Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov. He left his position when the war broke out, as did Stanislav Pozdnyakov, who headed the European Fencing Confederation. Pozdnyakov is also the president of the Russian Olympic Committee; his daughter, Sofia, is a Russian fencer.

For Krüger, the FIE's decision shows the influence that Russia has on her sport, and fencing's ties to the IOC, whose president, Thomas Bach, is a former Olympic fencer.

"It was clear that fencing would be one of the first sports for the Russians to come back," she said. "Usmanov gives a lot of money to the federation. We do not have big sponsors in fencing, so we are really dependent on him for money. And so, you see the connection between sports politics, fencing and Russia is very intense."

Meanwhile, Russian Sofya Velikaya, a five-time Olympic medalist in fencing, welcomed the decision in comments reported by TASS, the country's state news agency.

"I believed that this should happen, and I want to thank colleagues from different countries who voted for our return," Velikaya said. "Sport should provide equal rights and conditions, and common sense finally prevailed."

Germany's position unclear

The president of the German Fencing Federation (DFB), Claudia Bokel, said the vote was based on "geopolitics," adding: "The result that all athletes are allowed to participate again could be a sign of further voting in the sports world in the coming weeks."

But unlike its US counterpart, which made clear it had opposed overturning the ban, the DFB didn't state its position in a statement released after the vote.

Pressed for clarification on this matter, the DFB told DW that Bokel had "publicly taken a strong position against Russia in the past," before adding that she would "fundamentally not provide any information about secret votes."

It continued: "Any vote to admit or indeed not admit Russian athletes and officials would have consequences for the German Fencing Federation." 

One of those consequences could soon hit close to home. Germany is set to host a World Cup event in May, and it is unclear whether fencers from Russia and Belarus will be allowed to enter the country to take part.

"The German Fencing Federation is now awaiting an enquiry from the FIE as to whether the entry of Russian and Belarusian fencers into Germany can be guaranteed," it wrote in the statement. "Otherwise, we would probably be threatened with the withdrawal of international fencing events from Germany."

Edited by: Matt Pearson