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Ukraine fencer disqualified over Russian handshake snub

July 27, 2023

Olga Kharlan refused to shake the hand of her Russian opponent Anna Smirnova after winning the bout at the Fencing World Championships. Ukraine has called the decision to disqualify her "absolutely shameful."

Ukraine's Olha Kharlan fencing against Russian Anna Smirnova in Milan
Ukraine's Olha Kharlan defeated Russian Anna Smirnova 15-7Image: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

Ukrainian fencer Olga Kharlan was disqualified from her event at the Fencing World Championships in Italy on Thursday after declining to shake the hand of her Russian contender.

Kharlan, 32, claimed victory in the bout, defeating Russian fencer Anna Smirnova 15-7.

The four-time world saber champion was cheered on by around 20 members of the Ukrainian delegation chanting "Slava Ukraini" ("Glory to Ukraine").

After the bout, the Russian opponent walked up to Kharlan and extended her left hand.

However, the Ukrainian only shook her head briefly and held her saber out to her opponent before leaving the fencing piste.

Smirnova, furious at the snub, remained seated on the piste for more than half an hour after the incident.

According to the rules of the International Fencing Federation (FIE), "the two fencers must shake hands once the result is given."

Anna Smirnova sitting in a chair on the fencing piste
Russian fencer Anna Smirnova refused to leave the piste in an apparent protest against Kharlan's snubImage: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

Ukraine calls decision 'shameful'

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged the FIE to allow Kharlan to compete, saying she "won the fair competition and showed dignity."

Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak called the disqualification "shameful."

"The decision," he wrote on social media, "is the manifestation of a complete lack of empathy, misunderstanding of the emotional context and is absolutely shameful."

Mykhailo Illiashev, president of Ukraine's fencing federation (NFFU), said they planned to appeal the decision.

"We fully support Olga Kharlan in this situation. We are preparing a protest," he said in televised comments. "We will seek to cancel this black card because this disqualification will make it impossible for her to participate in the team competition, which will be held in Milan in a few days."

The women's team sabre event begins on July 29.

Ukraine relaxes Russian athlete policy

In participating in Thursday's event, Kharlan became the first athlete officially representing Ukraine to compete against a Russian opponent since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Smirnova competed not as part of a Russian team but under a neutral banner.

Ukraine's Sports Ministry previously had a policy of barring athletes from competing against  Russian or Belarusian athletes, even if they competed as neutrals.

But on Wednesday night, this policy was changed to only refer to Russians and Belarusians who officially compete on behalf of their countries, meaning Kharlan was free to verse Smirnova.

Ukrainian tennis players have been playing against Russian and Belarusian players since the invasion, but as individuals not representing their country. They too have avoided shaking hands with their opponents.

Olha Kharlan cheering on the fencing piste after her win
Olha Kharlan celebrated her win at the World Fencing Championships in Milan, ItalyImage: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

Kharlan had voiced opposition to the rule that had prevented her from versing Russians and Belarusians.

"It is important to our nation we do not remain on the couch," Kharlan previously said in an interview with the AFP news agency.

zc,nm/fb (AFP, SID)