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Olga Kharlan promised Olympic spot, reinstated for fencing worlds team event

Olga Kharlan

Ukraine’s fencer Olha Kharlan speaks during a press conference within the FIE Fencing World Championships at the Fair Allianz MI.CO (Milano Convegni) in Milan, on July 28, 2023. Ukraine’s Olha Kharlan was disqualified for not shaking the hand of her beaten Russian opponent Anna Smirnova at the Fencing World Championships on July 27. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP) (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine fencer Olga Kharlan was promised a 2024 Olympic spot by the IOC president and reinstated by the International Fencing Federation (FIE) for Sunday’s team event at the world championships.

Kharlan, a four-time Olympic medalist, was disqualified during Thursday’s individual sabre event at worlds after she did not shake hands with Anna Smirnova, a fencer from Russia, whom she beat in the first round.

Kharlan offered to touch sabre blades instead, which was allowed earlier during the pandemic to replace the otherwise required handshake, but the handshake was recently mandated again. Kharlan said she asked the FIE president the day before the competition if she could touch blades rather than shake hands and that the president said it was “probably” possible.

The Ukraine Fencing Federation said that Kharlan was disqualified after Smirnova protested that Kharlan showed a lack of respect.

Kharlan’s penalty — a “black card” — normally means a suspension for the rest of the competition and for the following 60 days of the active season. That could significantly affect a fencer’s ability to earn enough points from international results to qualify for the Olympics. The period to earn Olympic qualifying points is April 3, 2023 through April 1, 2024.

In a letter dated Friday, IOC President Thomas Bach, a 1976 Olympic fencing gold medalist, wrote to Kharlan that she will be given an additional quota place in the Paris Games if she is unable to qualify.

“As a fellow fencer, it is impossible for me to imagine how you feel at this moment,” Bach wrote to begin the letter. “The war against your country, the suffering of the people in Ukraine, the uncertainty around your participation at the Fencing World Championships in Milan, the difficult inner conflicts you and many of your fellow Ukrainian athletes may have and then the events which unfolded yesterday -- all this is a roller coaster of emotions and feelings. It is admirable how you are managing this incredibly difficult situation, and I would like to express my full support to you.”

Later Friday, the FIE announced that Kharlan’s penalty will be suspended so that she can compete in the team sabre event at worlds on Sunday, a key competition for Ukraine’s bid to qualify the maximum three women’s sabre fencers for Paris.

“We have discussed this issue and decision thoroughly, and we have met with Ms. Kharlan,” FIE interim president Emmanuel Katsiadakis said in a press release. “Furthermore, and after consultation with the International Olympic Committee, we believe this decision is made in keeping with the Olympic Spirit. It also sends a message of sensitivity and understanding to our members and all sports federations, as the world faces tremendous challenges.”

Kharlan thanked both Ukrainians and people from around the world who supported her after the disqualification.

“When you don’t see hope, you feel unbearable pain and despair, you think you’re all alone,” she posted on social media, according to an Instagram translation. “And then an entire multimillion-dollar country of Heroes rises to your protection and changes everything in your life.”

NBC Sports’ Charlotte Edmonds contributed reporting from Milan.