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Ukrainian fencer Olha Kharlan said the rules of her sport must be changed following her disqualification for refusing to shake hands with Russian Anna Smirnova at the World Fencing Championships in Milan, Italy.

Kharlan, a four-time world champion and Olympic medalist, won the individual saber bout on July 27 by a score of 15-7 over Smirnova and then refused to shake hands with the Russian competing as a neutral, offering a touch of her saber’s blade instead.

“I did not want to shake hands with this athlete, and I acted with my heart. So when I heard that they wanted to disqualify me it killed me so much that I was screaming in pain,” she said on July 27 on Instagram.

“I think I understand, like everyone else in this world, in a sane world, that the rules have to change because the world is changing,” she added.

Shaking an opponent’s hand after a bout is mandatory in fencing and customary in other sports such as tennis.

Tennis player Elina Svitolina and local football clubs Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk are among those expressing solidarity on social media with the 32-year-old fencer.

Svitolina refused to shake hands with Belarusian player Aryna Sabalenka earlier this month after losing to her at Wimbledon.

The Fencing Federation of Ukraine (NFFU) said earlier it was preparing to appeal a decision to disqualify Kharlan.

Smirnova was furious over the handshake snub and her defeat and refused to leave the arena for more than a half an hour after the incident.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said the decision by the International Fencing Federation (FIE) to disqualify Kharlan was “absolutely shameful.”

Podolyak posted a photo on Twitter of Smirnova smiling and flashing the victory sign, sporting a cap with a Russian star emblem.

“As you can see, she openly admires the Russian army, which is killing Ukrainians and destroying our cities,” he said.

It was not clear when the photo was taken.

Mykhaylo Illyashev, NFFU president, said the federation fully supports Kharlan in a statement broadcast by Ukrainian television.

“We have already submitted our protest to the Bureau of the International Fencing Federation,” Ilyashev told journalists. “We are waiting for the immediate consideration of this protest, so that this disqualification is canceled and Olha can take part in team competitions.”

Ilyashev noted that the disqualification appeared after the next match had been scheduled. He added that the disqualification bars Kharlan from participating in team competitions that will take place at the World Championships in a few days.

He stressed the importance of lifting the suspension before the team competition because the World Championships provide athletes many opportunities to score points for qualifying for the Olympics.

Kharlan, 32, claimed she had been told by the president of the FIE that she could forego the post-bout handshake.

Emmanuel Katsiadakis of Greece had even assured her that it was “possible” to offer a touch of her blade instead following her victory, she told reporters.

“I thought I had his word, to be safe, but apparently, no,” Kharlan said of Katsiadakis, who succeeded Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov as head of the ruling body in the aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“This federation will never change. In any case, I don’t know if I will still be alive if that ends up happening,” she said.

She said she had no regrets, having won Olympic gold in the team event in Beijing in 2008.

“All I know is that I really made the right choice,” she said.

Smirnova has been allowed to participate in the World Championships as a neutral athlete.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) later on July 27 urged sports federations to show sensitivity when handling contests between Ukrainian athletes and Russians competing as neutrals.

The IOC said it was aware of the “difficult inner conflicts” Ukrainian athletes may have, given the “aggression” against their country.

“Therefore, we encourage international federations to handle situations involving Ukrainian and individual neutral athletes with the necessary degree of sensitivity,” the IOC said. “We continue to stand in full solidarity with the Ukrainian athletes and the Olympic community of Ukraine.”

Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, four days after the closing ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

The IOC imposed sanctions against Russia and Belarus but earlier this year permitted athletes from the two countries to compete as neutral athletes.

The IOC has yet to make a final decision on whether to allow Russians and Belarusians to compete in the Paris Olympics in 2024.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters


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