Ukraine’s Olympic champion Olha Kharlan was disqualified from the 2023 World Championships after saluting her opponent with her sword in lieu of shaking the hand of her vanquished Russian opponent, Anna Smirnova.
This form of salute was allowed until at least January 2023. She reportedly informed International Fencing Federation (FIE) officials of her plans beforehand.
In search of her seventh world title, Kharlan beat the athlete from the aggressor nation 15-7.
Smirnova caused a scene afterwards, holding up the competition for over 45 minutes by refusing to leave the piste while she lodged a protest.
Fencers are required by rules to salute their opponent after a match. Traditionally, this was done in the form of a handshake. Fencing’s COVID-era rules, which were still in effect as of January 2023, called for a sword salute – like what Kharlan showed Smirnova – in place of the physical contact of a handshake.
The International Fencing Federation reinstated “neutral” Russian and Belarusian athletes in March 2023, though their screening has been called into question.
A photo of Smirnova smiling and giving the “peace symbol” beside a Russian soldier in uniform was shared by Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Judges initially dismissed the Russian protest, awarding the victory to Kharlan.
Kharlan was set to face Bulgaria’s Ioana Ilieva in the next round before discovering that the FIE had, indeed, disqualified her.
The FIE did not give a reason for Kharlan’s disqualification. The Ukrainian team failed to appeal the decision on time.
“We are preparing a protest, we will appeal,” said Ukrainian Fencing Federation President Mykhailo Ilyashev.
“But there is no question of returning her to these competitions.”
Adding to the circus-like atmosphere, the defeated Russian was also not advanced. Without FIE clarification, it is unclear why neither fighter was advanced.
It is also unclear why the international federation did not immediately release a statement justifying its decision to disqualify one of fencing’s most marketable athletes.
Olympic champion and Ukrainian MP Zhan Beleniuk said the FIE understood there would be no handshake following the match.
“The most cynical thing in this story is that there was an agreement between Olha and the leadership of the international federation,” he wrote on social media.
“It was agreed that there would be no handshake after the match.”
Kharlan’s refusal to salute her Russian opponent instead of shaking hands with her was praised by Ukraine’s Sports Minister Vadym Huttsait.
“Your performance is an example of strength, will, and love for Ukraine! Hold on! The main Victory of the country and yours very soon!,” wrote Huttsait who, like Kharlan, is an Olympic saber champion.
Kharlan was only able to compete thanks to a 23rd-hour intervention by Ukraine’s Ministry of Sport, which announced a change in its policy of having Ukrainian athletes boycott competitions that include Russian and Belarusian athletes.
Ukraine’s Sports Ministry passed Order No. 4435 late on July 26 – just hours before Kharlan was set to hit the piste. She was only cleared to compete by Ukrainian authorities at 9:00 am EET on July 27, shortly before she was scheduled to compete.
The change in Ukrainian policy was attributed to the IOC declining on July 26 to send invitations to Russia and Belarus to compete at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, though “neutral” athletes from the enemy nations may still get that opportunity.
While this allowed the opportunity for Kharlan to compete, it came too late for teammate and Olympic bronze medalist Ihor Reizlin, who was forced to withdraw from the competition hours earlier because Ukraine’s policy hadn’t been changed in time.
Curiously, the FIE drew Russian fencers against Ukrainians in each event, drawing criticism from some corners.
Kharlan made headlines earlier this week after taking to social media to forcefully speak out against Russia following the July 23 missile strike on Odesa that killed one civilian, injured 22, and destroyed many historic buildings in the city’s UNESCO-recognized center, including the famed Transfiguration Cathedral.
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