Le Pays De France - Russian athletes' participation at Paralympics under cloud of Ukraine invasion

Paris -
Russian athletes' participation at Paralympics under cloud of Ukraine invasion
Russian athletes' participation at Paralympics under cloud of Ukraine invasion

Russian athletes' participation at Paralympics under cloud of Ukraine invasion

Beijing's Winter Paralympics open Friday under the shadow of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, with questions remaining over whether athletes from Russia and its ally Belarus will be barred from participating in the Games.

Text size:

As the first city to host both Summer and Winter Games, the National Stadium -- known as the Bird's Nest -- will once again light up for an opening ceremony to welcome hundreds of athletes from all over the world.

Friday's celebrations could be muted, with the lead-up to the Games dogged by controversy as the world reacts with alarm to Russia invading Ukraine.

That includes the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which on Monday urged sporting federations across the world to exclude athletes from Russia and Belarus, which had hosted troops before the invasion.

But it remains up in the air if athletes from Russia -- who will compete for the Russian Paralympic Committee (RPC) following the country's ban for state-sponsored doping -- and Belarus will be barred from taking part in the Games.

The International Paralympic Committee will have a meeting Wednesday and a decision is expected by the evening.

Much of the sports world has reacted with solidarity to Ukraine.

FIFA kicked Russia out of the 2022 World Cup, while rugby's world governing body banned Russia and Belarus from all international rugby events "until further notice".

Russian President Vladimir Putin, an accomplished judoka, was also suspended as honorary head of the International Judo Federation.

- Ukraine team en route -

With its civilian airspace closed, half a million refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries, and Russian troops closing in on Kyiv, getting Ukraine's Paralympians to Beijing was going to be a logistical issue.

Committee president Andrew Parsons had said last week it would be a "mammoth challenge", declining to comment further for security reasons.

By late Tuesday, the country's National Sports Committee for the Disabled confirmed its full team of 20 athletes and nine guides were making their way to the Games.

"I hope that tomorrow, March 2, we will be in Beijing," said Natalia Garach, communications manager for Ukraine's team.

The small Eastern European country has punched above its weight in previous Paralympic Winter events, with frequent podium finishes in the biathlon and ski events.

The delegation took home 22 medals in 2018 -- including seven golds -- gaining the sixth spot on the world tally.

For some team members, the emotional rollercoaster and disrupted focus will be a case of deja vu.

During Russia's hosting of the Winter Paralympics in 2014, Ukrainian athletes had to grapple with Moscow's takeover of the Crimea peninsula.

- Games legacy in China –

Sporting action begins Saturday as more than 650 athletes from 49 countries compete in 78 events across six sports –- ice hockey, snowboarding, biathlon, cross-country skiing, alpine skiing and wheelchair curling.

Just like the Olympics last month, events will be held in a strict coronavirus bubble, and restrictions have canned public ticket sales -- though handpicked spectators sitting socially distanced can watch live at some venues.

During last month's Winter Olympics, Beijing celebrated a record nine gold medal haul -- narrowly beating out the United States.

China has consistently topped the medal tally at past Summer Paralympics.

But its first medal for the Winter Paralympics only came in 2018 -- a gold in wheelchair curling -- and it is hoping its largest ever team of 96 athletes will get more podium finishes this year.

China social welfare expert Xiaoyuan Shang said hosting the Paralympics again this year will build on the "positive legacies" left from the last time the Games were held in China.

That includes "making people with disabilities more confident in themselves, reducing discrimination and stigma towards people living with disabilities in China, improved accessible facilities in cities and changed social attitudes," she told AFP.

According to China Disabled Persons' Federation, more than 13,000 specialised fitness centres have opened in recent years.

China has also been on an accessibility drive since November 2019 –- installing wheelchair ramps, tactile paving for visually impaired people and improving public transport access.