Ukrainian fencer Olga Kharlan, a four-time Olympic medalist and four-time individual world champion, was disqualified from this year’s championships in Milan after she refused to shake hands with her Russian opponent Thursday.
The decorated fencer defeated Russian Anna Smirnova, who was competing as a neutral athlete, 15-7, in the women’s individual sabre.
Kharlan, 32, did not shake Smirnova’s hand as is mandated by the International Fencing Federation (FIE), but instead offered her blade, a gesture that replaced the handshake rule during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smirnova, 23, offered her hand, and after a brief standoff, Kharlan walked off to celebrate her victory.
Under the FIE’s most updated rules, competitors must “perform a fencer’s salute and shake hands” and refusal to do so “before the beginning of the bout or after the last hit” results in a black card.
The FIE did not release a statement regarding Kharlan’s disqualification, but the Fencing Federation of Ukraine announced plans to appeal the decision.
“The Fencing Federation of Ukraine supports the Olympic champion Olga Kharlan and is deeply indignant at the actions of the International Fencing Federation (FIE), which deprived our leading fencer, the leader of the national team, of the opportunity to continue the fight for awards at the World Championships in Milan,” the federation’s statement said.
“The Ukrainian Fencing Federation is preparing an appeal against the disqualification decision and will do everything possible so that Olga Kharlan can compete in the women’s sabre team tournament at the World Championships in Milan.”
The team event is slated to begin Saturday.
After the bout, Kharlan defended her actions, saying her choice of salute was meant as a sign of respect while still acknowledging the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia.
“I wanted to show my respect somehow because, first of all, I came to the piste to fence against her,” she said, via NBC Sports.
“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.”
Thursday’s match between Kharlan and Smirnova came just hours after the Ukrainian government announced it will no longer bar its athletes from competing against Russians who are taking part in sporting events as “neutral athletes,” a significant easing of its boycott policy a year before the Paris Olympics.
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