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The unwanted European fencing championships

June 15, 2023

A hastily arranged European championships will accommodate Russian fencers. Their presence means Ukrainians won't take part in events that could be key to qualifying for the Olympics. But nobody is happy.

Olga Kharlan competes at the Fencing Grand Prix
Fencers from all over Europe have been caught in choas ahead of next summer's OlympicsImage: Lee Jin-man/AP Photo/picture alliance

For months, the decision to readmit fencers from Russia and its ally Belarus has caused chaos and uncertainty for those hoping to qualify for next year's Paris Olympics

This Friday, all of that will come to a head when the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv hosts the sport's European championships — in individual competitions only — thanks to a last-minute addition to the calendar that is disrupting the preparations of fencers all over Europe.

That disruption is particularly acute for Ukrainian fencers. It has been confirmed that they won't take part in disciplines featuring the Russians, in line with a sporting boycott imposed by the Ukrainian government in April.

"It's very difficult," Olga Kharlan, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist in the individual sabre, told DW. "I would like to compete, it's very important for Olympic qualification. It's our future."

"From the other side, we also want to show the world that a country which is a terrorist state can't participate in competitions when the war is still going on. It's impossible right now."

'Taking the side of one country'

Kharlan says she will now focus her efforts on a second — or rather, the original — European championships taking place at the European Games in Krakow, Poland, later this month. 

However, because Russian and Belarusian fencers were banned from taking part by Games organizers, the International Fencing Federation (FIE) ruled that the individual competitions won't count towards Olympic qualification.

Ukraine national fencing team
Olga Kharlan (2nd from l.) fears her Olympic qualifcation hopes may be at riskImage: Derajinski Daniel/ABACA/picture alliance

That is a problem for Kharlan and her compatriots, because continental championships make up a big slice of the ranking points used to determine who goes to the Olympics. She acknowledges that her individual chances are effectively now "ruined."

"As you can see, the FIE does everything to let Russians come back," Kharlan said. "Because of this country they have changed everything. They force the whole continent to go to another competition. It's totally taking the side of one country."

"The FIE just closes its eyes to the war and what is going on in the world," she added. "The FIE can do whatever they want. But I hope someday it will change and people will make them act. Otherwise, it will always be like this."

IOC's Bach: Sport works with Russians and Belarusians 

The current chaos in fencing appears at odds with recent comments by Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). He told a gathering of sports officials last month that many sports had "very successfully" implemented his organization's recommendations, calling out the "naysayers who want to make people believe that it would never work."

Russian fencer Sofya Velikaya
Former European champion and Olympic medalist Sofya Velikaya will not be able to compete in ParisImage: Sefa Karacan/AA/picture alliance

Those recommendations, while permitting some individuals to compete as neutrals, include not allowing teams from Russia and Belarus (which is why there will be no team competitions in Plovdiv), as well as anyone who has actively supported the war or who is contracted to the military.

As the saying goes, you cannot please all of the people all of the time. But as the situation in fencing is showing, nobody is pleased at the moment — not even the Russians.

In the aftermath of the FIE's vote to overturn its ban on Russians and Belarusians in March, Russia's fencing federation sought to establish who on its team could compete, to no avail. Weeks and months passed by; competitions with Olympic ranking points on offer came and went.

Last month, the FIE finally provided a list of vetted athletes. Missing were the likes of Sofya Velikaya and Sofia Pozdniakova, both Olympic champions in the sabre discipline at the last Games in Tokyo but, crucially in terms of the IOC's recommendations, both members of CSKA Moscow, the army club.

"[The list] contains no names that are familiar to the world of sports," federation chief Ilgar Mamedov bemoaned to Russian state news agency TASS at the time.

"Probably in their opinion, they feel like the victims in this situation, but they're not," Kharlan said.

Ukrainians shut out on purpose?

Out of a total of 17 Russian fencers who have been cleared to take part internationally by the FIE, just six are traveling to Bulgaria. They include the lowly-ranked Alena Lisina and Anna Smirnova in the sabre. That is despite suggestions that Russia wasn't prepared to accept the FIE's conditions. 

Stanislav Pozdnyakov, head of the Russian Olympic Committee and father of the rejected Sofia Pozdniakova, previously described the list of vetted athletes as a "farce" and hinted at a boycott.

"Our fencers will only participate on an equal footing with athletes from other countries, without any contrived and illegitimate parameters and other artificial obstacles," Pozdnyakov wrote on social media.

The suspicion from those inside the sport is that Russia has, on purpose, only entered disciplines such as Kharlan's where Ukrainian fencers are strongest, knowing full well that this would block them from taking part and damage their chances of Olympic qualification.

"It makes sense, I don't see any other reason right now," said Kharlan, who has headed to Plovdiv anyway, on the off-chance that the Russians in her discipline don't end up competing. "Why don't they take part in the other weapons? This is weird, right?"

It is little consolation to Kharlan that her major rivals from Russia won't be there, either.

"For me, all of this happening is not a joy, it's justice," she said. "Because there's a lot of injustice against my country right now and against me personally. These people are representing the army, they're advertisements of Putin in everything. They have to understand that right now it's not time for them to go anywhere because their country is killing people."

"So how can I be happy? I want peace in my country, I want Russia to go away forever and for people to stop dying. When that happens, then I will be happy."

Edited by: James Thorogood