Hundreds of fencers protest against letting Russians compete
More than 300 fencers, including nine medallists from the last Olympics in Tokyo, signed an open letter published Tuesday urging the sport's governing body and the International Olympic Committee not to allow Russian fencers to compete while the war in Ukraine continues.
The International Fencing Federation, known by its French acronym FIE, voted this month to allow fencers from Russia and its ally Belarus to return to international competitions as qualifying for next year's Olympics in Paris ramps up. They are set to compete as neutral athletes without national symbols like an anthem or flag.
"The FIE is not fulfilling its duty of care for athletes, especially for Ukrainians. Your insufficient leadership in completely banning Russia and Belarus is being called out by athletes and civil society across the globe," said the open letter signed by the fencers, organized by two advocacy groups, Athleten Deutschland and Global Athlete.
"You have chosen Russian and Belarusian interests over the rights of athletes, notably Ukrainian athletes, and by doing so, you are failing to support the very people your organizations are meant to support."
The letter was published on the same day that the board of the IOC -- whose president Thomas Bach was a gold medalist in fencing at the 1976 Montreal Olympics -- was meeting to discuss setting new recommendations for sports bodies 16 months before the opening of the Paris Games.
The IOC recommended excluding Russian and Belarusian athletes on security grounds last year following Russia's invasion but has recently sought to create a pathway for them to return to competition.
Bach opened a board meeting with a defense of letting Russian and Belarusian athletes compete in international sport, saying that it "works."
"We see this almost every day in a number of sports," Bach told media allowed to film his opening speech at IOC headquarters in Lausanne.
Bach first cited cycling and tennis, though there was tension among fans in the stands at the Australian Open, and women players from Ukraine have regularly refused to shake hands or be photographed with opponents from Russia and Belarus.
Fencers are the latest group to show support for Ukrainian athletes, who are almost universally opposed to the IOC's push for letting Russians return, while track and field's World Athletics governing body last week extended its exclusion while the war continues.
The group who signed the open letter include Lee Kiefer of the U.S., the Olympic gold medalist in women's foil, French men's team foil gold medalist Erwann Le Pechoux and four-time Olympic medalist from Ukraine, Olga Kharlan.
Billionaire Russian businessman Alisher Usmanov has been the FIE president since 2008, though he suspended himself from his duties on March 1, 2022, days after the invasion, after he was placed under European Union sanctions.
The FIE's decision has already affected its competitions after the organizers of an upcoming event in Germany on the showpiece Grand Prix circuit refused to stage it.
The event in May in the town of Tauberbischofsheim, where Bach grew up, would have been one of the first fencing competitions to include Russian and Belarusian athletes since the invasion.