Russophobia has no place in sport

Russian fencers are not to blame for the crimes of Vladimir Putin.

Charlie Peters

Topics Politics Sport World

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A Ukrainian fencer was briefly banned from the World Fencing Championships last week after she refused to shake hands with her defeated Russian opponent. Olga Kharlan offered to tap blades with Anna Smirnova in Milan, but said she would ‘never shake hands’ with her.

Kharlan received a ‘black card’ – a disqualification from both individual and team events at the championships – for her unsporting conduct. Afterwards, she defended her actions, saying that the rules on shaking hands should be different for her and other Ukrainians. ‘During this war we just can’t do handshakes, and you have to change, and you have to have some respect for us’, she said.

Kharlan’s black-card ban might seem harsh, but there are good reasons why opponents should have to shake hands after a fencing match. Fencing is a cruel, brutal sport. It is both a physical and mental contest, like a combination of boxing and chess. Any drop in concentration is fatal, and so attempts to distract or plant niggling thoughts in the mind of an opponent are common. Failing to adapt to an opponent’s strategy reveals your own flaws. Frustrations can easily reach boiling point.

This is why fencing’s traditions of sportsmanship have lasted for centuries. Saluting with swords before the bout and shaking hands afterwards help to settle any bubbling animosity that may have developed during the highly tense matches. By refusing to shake hands, Kharlan not only disrespected her opponent, she also disrespected the sport itself.

Despite this, the decision against Kharlan has since been reversed by the International Fencing Federation (FIE), following a wave of online fury. Support for Kharlan poured in, particularly from Ukrainian politicians and athletes. Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba accused Smirnova of ‘playing dirty’, while tennis player Elina Svitolina described Kharlan’s disqualification as ‘disrespectful’. Kira Rudik, a Ukrainian MP, said she was ‘absolutely outraged’ at the suspension, adding that ‘we do not shake bloody hands of the murderers’. These sentiments echo the remarks made by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky earlier this year, when he said ‘any neutral flag of Russian athletes is stained with blood’.

This kind of language must be pushed back against. Anna Smirnova is a fencer, not a murderer. Like the vast majority of Russians, she is an innocent bystander in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

This is far from an isolated incident. It is now all too common for Russian athletes to be punished for the crimes of Vladimir Putin. Last year, Wimbledon enacted a blanket ban on all Russian competitors. For this year’s tournament, Russian tennis players were allowed to enter only as neutral athletes.

And it’s not just sporting bodies that have been lashing out against Russians. The Wimbledon ban last spring came at a time when Conservative MPs in the UK were calling for legislation that would kick Russian children out of British schools. Tory MP Roger Gale went so far as to call for all Russian visas to be revoked. ‘Send everybody home’, was his demand, even though, as Gale himself acknowledged, this would harm many thousands of ‘good and honest and decent Russians in this country’.

Not even Russian cultural icons have been safe from this Russophobic hysteria, with historical figures from Tchaikovsky to Yuri Gagarin being cancelled on account of their nationality.

I’ve seen the hateful thinking behind these outbursts firsthand. At an event I attended earlier this year in London, a panel of foreign correspondents from British newspapers was asked by a Ukrainian audience member if there were ‘any good Russians’. You could understand such anger coming from a young Ukrainian. But the answer that came back from one hack at a major newspaper was totally inexcusable. ‘If there are, there are no more than a hundred or so’, he told the crowd. This intolerant journalist seemed to forget the many thousands of brave Russians who have resisted the invasion of Ukraine, to great personal cost.

It’s time we stopped taking out our anger about the war on ordinary Russian citizens. Russian athletes are hardly any more to blame for Putin’s war than you or I. Punishing them will get us nowhere.

Charlie Peters is a writer. Follow him on Twitter: @CDP1882

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics Sport World


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