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A Ukrainian fencer scorned a Russian's handshake, challenging the sport's traditions

Ukraine's Olha Kharlan (L) refuses to shake hands with Russia's Anna Smirnova, registered as an Individual Neutral Athlete (AIN), after she defeated her during the Sabre Women's Senior Individual qualifiers, as part of the FIE Fencing World Championships on July 27.
Andreas Solaro
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AFP via Getty Images
Ukraine's Olha Kharlan (L) refuses to shake hands with Russia's Anna Smirnova, registered as an Individual Neutral Athlete (AIN), after she defeated her during the Sabre Women's Senior Individual qualifiers, as part of the FIE Fencing World Championships on July 27.

Tensions related to Russia's invasion of Ukraine played out this past week on the mats of a fencing match in Italy, putting the spotlight on the purpose and future of one of the sport's traditions.

In an unprecedented series of events, Ukrainian star fencer Olga Kharlan refused to shake hands with her Russian competitor Anna Smirnova after their match at the world championships in Milan.

Kharlan was black-carded and disqualified. But after mounting pressure, the International Fencing Federation reversed its decision and allowed Kharlan to return to the tournament.

The face-off and fall-out between Kharlan and Smirnova raised a host of questions about neutrality, the limits of sportsmanship and one of fencing's oldest traditions, the handshake.

It also proved just how difficult it can be to disentangle sports and politics on the world stage — a matter that will likely become more serious and urgent as the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris draws near.

What happened

On Thursday, Kharlan defeated Smirnova 15-7 in their first round. To formally end the bout, Smirnova reached out her hand. But Kharlan, who has been a vocal critic of Russia, shook her head and opted for her sabre. Tapping blades has become an acceptable alternative to shaking hands for many fencers since COVID.

The two briefly stood still — Kharlan extending her blade, Smirnova keeping her's held back — before Kharlan stormed off. Smirnova stayed at the fencing piste for over 50 minutes to speak to several officials in an apparent protest over the handshake. Kharlan ultimately received a black card, eliminating her from the rest of the tournament.

"The Russian fencer did not need to protest that. They could have finished the bout amicably," Elizabeth Earls, executive director of West Berkeley Fencing Club, told NPR. "So she was taking a stand as well."

The ruling was met with pushback from both officials in Ukraine and international sports. On Friday, the International Olympic Committee assuredKharlan a spot at the 2024 Olympics. That day, the International Fencing Federation also allowedKharlan back to compete in the team event.

The Russian fencer's neutrality is put into question

For months, the Ukrainian government refused to allow its athletes to participate in competitions with players from Russia or Belarus. On Wednesday, a day before their fencing bout, the policy was amended to allow Ukrainian athletes to compete against Russians or Belarusians who agreed to be "neutral" — meaning no flags, no anthems and no public support for the invasion.

Kharlan said she told a fencing official before the match that she would not shake hands with Smirnova and was told the blade touch would be acceptable.

Ukrainian officials quickly came to Kharlan's defense, allegingthat her disqualification was the Russian fencer's plan all along. Mykhailo Podoliak, a Ukrainian presidential adviser, also pointed to a photoof Smirnova wearing a Russian army winter hat, accusing her of not truly being neutral.

Though Russian competitors compete as independent athletes not representing any country, Greg Massialas, a fencing coach for Team USA, says Russia still has sway over which of its athletes will be allowed to compete.

Massialas told NPR he believes Russia gave permission to fencers who had a high likelihood of competing specifically against Ukrainians and in turn possibly triggering a controversy.

"The Russian Federation had the option to send or not send any of these people," Massialas said. "And it happened to be the people they sent were in specific weapons, which are events that Ukrainians had a good possibility to qualify for the Olympic Games."

Why fencing takes handshaking so seriously

Olga Kharlan of Team Ukraine, right, competes against Hengyu Yang of Team China at the Tokyo Olympic Games at Makuhari Messe on July 26, 2021 in Chiba, Japan.
Julian Finney / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Olga Kharlan of Team Ukraine, right, competes against Hengyu Yang of Team China at the Tokyo Olympic Games at Makuhari Messe on July 26, 2021 in Chiba, Japan.

At the end of a fencing bout, competitors are required to clasp one another's ungloved and non-fight hand. The skin to skin contact serves as a sign of respect and a nod to the medieval days of dueling, when matches were life and death.

Regulations around handshaking go back as early as the 15th century, according to Anders Linnard, a fencing historian based in Sweden.

"Fencing was a matter of honor and by accepting a duel you also saw your opponent as an equal of sorts," Linnard told NPR.

Earls from West Berkeley Fencing Club similarly said, "It's a signal that the fight is over and we resume being human beings."

Though its purposes are symbolic, in international fencing, refusing a handshake is a black card offense — subject to elimination and a two-month suspension — to penalize unsportsman-like behavior.

Three-time Olympian Massialas said he never witnessed a fencer refuse to shake hands in his 50-year career.

The strict policy may lead to more controversy

Before Kharlan was reinstated, the Ukrainian athlete said on Instagram that she did not regret refusing to shake hands and that she was following her heart.

Kharlan added that the incident left her wondering if it's time for some rules to change. But the International Fencing Federation said it stands behind its rules.

While there is merit to sportsmanship eclipsing politics, some argue that fencing's strict policy around handshakes will possibly put Ukrainian fencers in a difficult, inappropriate position.

"It feels in the fencing community that athletes maybe aren't protected in these kinds of situations," Earls said.

A number of Ukrainian athletes have resisted or refused to shake hands or compete against Russian and Belarusian players since Russia invaded Ukraine last year and Belarus backed the invasion.

Ukrainian tennis player Elina Svitolina has repeatedly said she will not shake hands with competitors from Russia or Belarus. Svitolina said she does not want to have a photo of her shaking hands with Russian and Belarusian players.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.