A record number of Para athletes – around 700 – were expected to compete in this year’s Winter Paralympics in Beijing, but much of the focus the day before the Opening Ceremony fell on the 83 who won’t.
That’s after the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) announced the U-turn decision to block Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing at the Games in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
According to the IPC, backlash from the teams and athletes preparing to compete in Beijing was “jeopardising the viability” of the Games and making the safety of athletes “untenable,” even after Russian and Belarusian participants were set to compete as neutrals.
It is against this backdrop that the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Paralympics gets underway on Friday with the first events scheduled for Saturday. The competition runs until March 13 and showcases 78 events across six Para sports: alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, para ice hockey, snowboarding and wheelchair curling.
As with last month’s Winter Olympics, events will be held in the three separate zones of central Beijing, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou.
After Russian troops were first deployed in Ukraine last week, the IPC issued a condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s breach of the Olympic Truce – a resolution that orders conflicts around the world to be paused from seven days before the Winter Olympics to seven days after the Winter Paralympics.
Then on Monday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) “recommended” that Russian and Belarusian athletes were either banned from international sporting events or allowed to compete as neutrals where the “short notice” of the decision would make a ban unfeasible.
Earlier this week, IPC president Andrew Parsons said permitting Russian and Belarusian participation in Beijing, albeit as neutrals, was the “harshest possible punishment” at the governing body’s disposal, but pressure from the international Para sport community has forced the IPC to resort to sterner measures.
A statement released by Ukrainian athletes said Russia and Belarus would use the Games as “state propaganda […] with or without a neutral label,” while Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, said the decision not to issue a complete participation ban “excuses Russia’s disregard for not only the Olympic truce, but also for the victims of a senseless war.”
The IPC was left in a “unique and impossible position,” according to Parsons, who said that multiple countries had threatened not to compete in Beijing.
Having previously said that Russian and Belarusian athletes could compete as neutrals, on Thursday, the IPC barred 71 athletes from Russia and 12 from Belarus from competing at the Games. “You are victims of your governments’ actions” was Parsons’ message to those impacted by the decision.
Belarus has been a key military ally for Russia during the conflict, serving as a launch point for troops into Ukraine.
Action begins in Beijing, the first city to host both a Summer and Winter Games, with medal events in men’s and women’s para alpine skiing downhill and the men’s and women’s para biathlon on Saturday.
Host China will have a team of 96 athletes competing across all six sports over the course of the Games. Having claimed its first medal – a gold in wheelchair curling – in Pyeongchang four years ago, there are high expectations that this year’s Chinese team could deliver more success.
The United States topped the medal table at the last Winter Paralympics and has sent a 67-strong team – 28 of whom are making their Paralympic debuts – this year.
Among the athletes returning to the team is Oksana Masters, a 10-time Paralympic medalist across the Summer and Winter Games who has competed in rowing, cycling, cross-country skiing and biathlon.
Oksana Masters: From hospital bed to Paralympic champion in two-and-a-half months
Born in Ukraine before being adopted by her American mother, Masters is one of the most decorated Paralympic athletes from the past decade. Ahead of the Games, she said her “heart is breaking” for the country of her birth.
Other stars of the American team include hockey player Declan Farmer – whose two goals helped the US defeat Canada and win gold at the last Games – and Dan Cnossen, a former Navy SEAL who claimed six medals in biathlon and cross-country skiing four years ago.
On the Canadian team, cross-country skier Brian McKeever will compete in his sixth and final Paralympic Games at the age of 42. McKeever, the most decorated male cross-country skier at the Paralympics, has amassed 17 medals since his debut in 2002, 13 of which are gold.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has sent a full contingent of 20 athletes and nine guides to Beijing to compete in biathlon and cross-country skiing events.
The team’s arrival in Beijing was hailed as a “miracle” by Valeriy Sushkevych, President of the Ukrainian Paralympic Committee.
“We came here from Ukraine and we traveled through Ukraine. It took us many days. We had to overcome a lot of barriers that had to do with the war,” Sushkevych told reporters on Thursday.
“Many members of our team barely managed to escape from the bombardment and shells exploding, but still we made it here.”
Sushkevych said he slept on the floor of the team’s bus for the last two days of their journey through Europe before boarding a flight to Beijing, adding: “We could have given up and not come to Beijing. This was the situation; bombs were exploding, missiles were exploding.
“There’s a large-scale war in Ukraine. When simple things could not be organized, the easiest solution would have been to stay in Ukraine.”
The countermeasures that were in place for the Winter Olympics in February are also being implemented for the Paralympics.
That includes a “closed loop” system encompassing venues, conference centers, and hotels and connected by a transport service dedicated to the Games. Being fully vaccinated enables participants to enter the “closed loop” without quarantining, while those who aren’t vaccinated have to isolate for 21 days on arrival.
Once inside the “closed loop,” Games participants are subjected to daily Covid-19 tests and, if they test positive, are confined to a room in an isolation facility until they return two consecutive negative tests at least 24 hours apart.
At the close of the Winter Olympics on February 20, a total of 437 Covid-19 cases were recorded among Olympics-related personnel after more than 1.8 million tests; 185 of those positive tests related to athletes and team officials.
Between the end of the Olympics and Wednesday, which marked two days before the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympics, a further 17 cases of Covid-19 were recorded.