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Ukraine fencing star Olga Kharlan disqualified from worlds after not shaking Russian’s hand

Olga Kharlan

Ukraine’s Olga Kharlan (L) refuses to shake hands with Russia’s Anna Smirnova, registered as an Individual Neutral Athlete (AIN), after she defeated her during the Sabre Women’s Senior Individual qualifiers, as part of the FIE Fencing World Championships at the Fair Allianz MI.CO (Milano Convegni) in Milan, on July 27, 2023. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP) (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

Olga Kharlan, an Olympic champion fencer from Ukraine, was disqualified from the world championships after not shaking hands after beating an opponent from Russia in the first round.

Kharlan won the bout 15-7 over Anna Smirnova from Russia. The International Fencing Federation (FIE), like some sports federations, allows athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete in a neutral capacity without their national flag and anthem.

After the bout, Kharlan walked toward Smirnova and put out her sabre, rather than her hand, to acknowledge Smirnova (a practice allowed to replace the otherwise required handshake during the pandemic, but not anymore).

Smirnova walked toward Kharlan and put her hand out for a handshake. The two fencers stood in their differing positions for a few seconds, and then Kharlan walked off the strip.

“I wanted to show my respect somehow because, first of all, I came to the piste to fence against her,” the 32-year-old Kharlan said. “No Ukrainian athletes did it before [during the war], so I was the first one, and I showed my respect by fencing against her, and I won this match clearly and fair.”

Smirnova then spent about 50 minutes on the strip, half of it sitting in a chair, while at times speaking with at least three different officials. It delayed competition.

Kharlan was later given a “black card,” eliminating her from the rest of the individual competition. Smirnova was not advanced, though.

The FIE has not said why Kharlan was disqualified. Smirnova and her coaches declined comment.

The Ukraine Fencing Federation said that it was deeply outraged by Kharlan’s disqualification and was preparing an appeal. It said that Kharlan was disqualified after Smirnova protested that Kharlan showed a lack of respect.

FIE rule t.122B states that fencers must “salute and shake hands with their opponent” after a bout. If not, the rules state that the fencer faces disqualification.

Kharlan said she asked the FIE president, who is Greek, on Wednesday if she could acknowledge Smirnova with her sabre rather than a handshake and not be disqualified. She said the FIE president told her it would “probably” be possible.

Also Wednesday, Kharlan said she had a call with her family back in Ukraine, who were in their basement at the time due to air sirens.

Kharlan thought to herself, “I have to [fence Smirnova] because I have to fight. I have to fight for them.”

After Thursday’s bout, Kharlan said she heard from a lot of Ukrainian military who supported her.

“It makes me even more cry,” she said. “I’m thankful to them for what they do.”

The competition was the day after the Ukraine government changed a policy and gave the OK for its athletes to compete in Olympic qualifiers against individual athletes from Russia and Belarus who are participating in a neutral capacity.

The previous policy, from March 31, recommended not competing against Russians and Belarusians in any capacity.

That led to Ukrainian athletes not competing at events in other sports, including world championships, where athletes from Russia and Belarus were admitted as neutrals. However, Ukrainians and neutral athletes from Russia have faced each other in at least one other sport, tennis, where the Olympic qualifying window began in June.

A government document posted Wednesday added the neutral language as an exception.

It is not known if Ukraine’s policy will extend to the Paris Olympics, where athletes from Russia and Belarus who qualify could be allowed to compete without national representation. A final decision on participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus at the Olympics has not been made.

In March, the IOC updated its recommendations to international sports federations regarding Russian and Belarusian athletes, advising that they can return to competitions outside of the Olympics as neutral athletes in individual events only and only if they do not actively support the war in Ukraine. That policy was cited by the Ukraine government in Wednesday’s document.

After Ukraine’s previous policy was announced in March, Kharlan said, “As a Ukrainian citizen, it’s tough to even imagine how to stand next to [Russians], to know that they’re supporting or they’re in silence and we haven’t heard any word from them or we know that they represent army that’s shelling Ukraine every day.”

Kharlan is one of Ukraine’s most decorated athletes across all sports with four Olympic medals and 15 world championships medals.

At worlds, fencers from Ukraine and Russia were drawn to face each other in the first round in the only two possible instances out of the six individual main draw competitions with fields of 64.

On Wednesday, before the policy change, Ukraine epee fencer Ihor Reizlin handed Vadim Anokhin from Russia a walkover victory, producing a medical certificate for his absence, according to Agence France-Presse.

NBC Sports’ Charlotte Edmonds contributed reporting from Milan.