Following her disqualification for refusing to shake hands with Russian Anna Smirnova at the World Championships in Milan on Thursday, Ukrainian fencer Olga Kharlan stated that rules must be changed.
Kharlan, a four-time Olympic medalist and world champion, won the solo sabre battle 15-7 and then refused to shake hands with her opponent, instead tapping blades with her sabre.
Smirnova remained on the piste for over half an hour after the incident, speaking with a number of officials before leaving. In fencing’s rules, shaking an opponent’s hand is mandatory and failure to do so results in a ‘black card’.
“Today was a very difficult and very important day. What happened today raises a lot of questions,” Kharlan said in a video posted on Instagram later on Thursday.
“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.
“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.”
Tennis player Elina Svitolina, and local football clubs such as Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk have been among the figures who have expressed their solidarity on social media for the 32-year-old fencer.
Ukrainian athletes in other sports – including Svitolina and fellow tennis player Marta Kostyuk – have also refused to shake hands with Russian and Belarusian opponents following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Moscow using Belarus as a staging ground for what it calls a “special military operation”.
“We fully support Olga Kharlan in this situation. We are preparing a protest,” Mykhailo Illiashev, president of Ukraine’s fencing federation (NFFU), said in televised comments.
“We will appeal this decision, because the referee who judged this match did not give directly a black card or disqualify her.
“It was only later that the underhanded games began and this disqualification appeared already after the next opponent was determined, already after a judge for the next competition was determined.”
Ukrainian Sports Minister Vadym Huttsait described the incident as “an obvious provocation from the Russian side”.
Huttsait, a gold medallist in team sabre at the 1992 Barcelona Games, told a press conference that Smirnova “approached (Kharlan), provoked her, holding her hand up for a long time and waiting.”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, writing on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, said Smirnova “lost the fair competition and decided to play dirty with the handshake show. This is exactly how Russian army acts on the battlefield.”
Illiashev said the NFFU anticipate the appeal to be considered within the next few days.
“In this case, we will seek to cancel this black card because this disqualification will make it impossible for her to participate in the team competition, which will be held in Milan in a few days,” Illiashev said.
“And it is important for us that our team performs.”
The women’s team sabre event begins on July 29.
Kharlan is representing Ukraine at the competition after the country’s sports ministry on Wednesday relaxed its rules over national sports teams competing in Olympic, non-Olympic and Paralympic events that have competitors from Russia and Belarus.
Smirnova was competing as a neutral.
The International Fencing Federation (FIE) did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment. The International Olympic Committee was not immediately available for comment.