Athletes from Russia and Belarus will not be allowed to compete at the 2022 Winter Paralympics in Beijing after the International Paralympic Committee reversed its original decision.
The IPC was heavily criticised when, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it initially said it would allow the athletes to compete as neutrals.
The Games’ opening ceremony takes place on Friday.
IPC president Andrew Parsons said an “overwhelming number of members” had spoken to the IPC and said they would not compete in the Winter Paralympics should athletes from Russia and Belarus be allowed to take part.
Parsons described the Russian and Belarusian athletes affected as “victims of your governments’ actions”.
“We are very firm believers that sport and politics should not mix,” Parsons added.
“However, by no fault of its own the war has now come to these Games and behind the scenes many governments are having an influence on our cherished event.
“Ensuring the safety and security of athletes is of paramount importance to us and the situation in the athlete villages is escalating and has now become untenable.”
Valeriy Sushkevych, the Ukrainian Paralympic chief, said Ukraine’s presence at the Games is a “symbol that Ukraine is alive”.
There were set to be 71 competitors from Russia and 12 from Belarus – plus guides for both nations – competing in Beijing.
Parsons said the decision to prevent the athletes competing would “preserve the integrity” of the Games and “the safety of all participants”.
On Wednesday, a number of governing bodies and political figures criticised the IPC for not immediately banning Russian and Belarusian athletes.
A joint statement from the athletes of Ukraine and the Global Athlete group, an international athlete-led body that aims to inspire change in world sport, said the IPC had issued “another blow” to every Ukrainian athlete and citizen with its decision.
Ukrainian Olympic skeleton racer Vladyslav Heraskevych, speaking before the IPC reversed its decision, described the situation as “disgusting”.
“They put Russia above the interest of other countries,” Heraskevych, who displayed an anti-war sign during the Beijing Games in February, said.
“Anything less than a full ban is unacceptable. It’s sad and heartbreaking.”
Nadine Dorries, UK Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said she was “very pleased” the IPC had changed its ruling after calling for it to “urgently reconsider” its decision.
Dorries added: “The welfare of all the other competing athletes is of upmost importance and we’re pleased the IPC also recognise that.”
Professor Nick Webborn, chair of British Paralympic Association, said the IPC’s decision on Thursday was the right one.
Asked if the ParalympicsGB team would have boycotted the Games, Webborn told Radio 4: “That was one potential scenario but something that we would not wish to exercise because our athletes deserve the right to be here.
“We would not want to remove that opportunity for them if we could possibly help it.”
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, who won 11 Paralympic gold medals for Great Britain in the summer Games, said she felt sympathy for the athletes on an individual level.
“Life in Russia for a disabled person is incredibly hard and most of the athletes are only funded on the medals that they win,” she told BBC Breakfast.
“If they are not able to get any funding, it affects not only their ability to do sport, but also their lives. It is hard, but we cannot keep pretending sport and politics aren’t linked.”
Parsons said it was unlikely a viable Games could take place should Russian and Belarusian athletes be allowed to compete.
“To the Para-athletes from the impacted countries, we are very sorry that you are affected by the decisions your governments took last week in breaching the Olympic Truce,” he added.
“I hope and pray that we can get back to a situation when the talk and focus is fully on the power of sport to transform the lives of persons with disabilities, and the best of humanity.”
A number of governing bodies from across sport have introduced measures to exclude Russian and Belarusian athletes, including banning the use of their flags and cancelling events.
‘Our presence here is not merely a presence’
Ukraine has reported that more than 2,000 civilians have died since Russia began its invasion on 24 February.
Their Paralympic team, consisting of 20 athletes and nine guides, are in Beijing and able to compete.
Sushkevych said it was a “miracle” that the team had made it to the Games amid the turmoil caused by the Russian invasion.
“We came here from Ukraine and we travelled through Ukraine. It took us many days, we had to overcome a lot of barriers that had to do with the war,” Sushkevych said.
“Many members of our team barely managed to escape from the bombardments and shells exploding but still we made it here.
“I can say that this is a miracle.”
Sushkevych thanked reporters who attended a news conference on Thursday, saying their attention was important “for Ukraine and all countries and people in the world”.
He said that while staying in Ukraine would have been the easiest thing, their absence from the Games would have signified that “this country would cease to exist”.
“To be more specific, a superpower wants to destroy our country. Our presence here is not merely a presence,” Sushkevych added.
“This is a sign that Ukraine was, is and will remain a country. For us, it is a matter of principle to be here with the Paralympic family – to be here as a symbol of Ukraine that is alive.” -BBC