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Paralympics reverses decision, denies Russia and Belarus access to games

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The International Paralympic Committee reversed course today and will now ban athletes from Russia and Belarus from the Paralympic Games, which start tomorrow in Beijing. Eighty-three athletes with disabilities are affected. Now, this comes as a growing number of sports organizations have closed their doors to athletes and officials from the two countries. NPR's Brian Mann is just back from covering the Olympics in Beijing. Brian, the Paralympics Committee just yesterday said yes to athletes from Russia and Belarus. Now today, it's a no. So why this sudden change?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah, the IPC said it wanted to be above politics, above international conflict, but the pressure just kept growing, including from disabled athletes. Here's four-time Paralympic weightlifter Ali Jawad from Great Britain, who said allowing Russians to compete would effectively be a propaganda boon to Vladimir Putin.

ALI JAWAD: These athletes will be rewarded when they go back to their countries and considered heroes. And the Russians - they will use that to further their agenda.

MANN: And a growing number of countries, A, signaled similarly strong objections, saying they would withdraw their athletes from Beijing if Russia and Belarus were there. So the IPC changed course. In a statement, the head of IPC, Andrew Parsons, said war has now come to these games. As you mentioned, 83 disabled athletes from Russia and Belarus will now be banned from competing. That's according to the IPC.

MARTINEZ: And something else that's troubling from that statement - Parsons also referenced security and safety for athletes inside the Olympic Village in Beijing. What do we know about that?

MANN: Yeah, this is fascinating. Parsons said - and I want to quote him here - "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" - his words there. Parsons also talked about the health risks for athletes. We don't know of any particular incidents or threats, but we have been hearing that there were plans for protests in Beijing among athletes from around the world outraged by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. So this was clearly a volatile situation.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, sounds like it. So remind us of the bigger picture here. How is the international sports community broadly responding to Russia launching this war?

MANN: Yeah, this has been sweeping and dramatic - a kind of isolation that mirrors the economic and cultural sanctions we've been seeing. The International Olympic Committee, which has long and deep ties to Russian officials, took the unprecedented step of urging sports groups to ban any involvement by Russian athletes and officials and also to pull sport events out of Russia that were previously scheduled. The world's two major soccer leagues, including FIFA, have banned Russian clubs, knocking them effectively out of the World Cup. So even sports leagues that have a lot to lose here - money and sponsorships and their postures of neutrality - they are backing away from Russia fast. And important to note, I think, just how important sport is to Russia - to its national identity, its sense of being a player on the world stage.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Now, a very remarkable shift with Russia really a pariah here, but wasn't the country's sports industry under a cloud of scandal even before this?

MANN: Yeah. And I think this context is one of the reasons that this is so dramatic. There's been evidence for years that Russian teams and coaches and doctors engaged in systematic doping - you know, using banned substances to cheat and gain an advantage. This resurfaced again last month in Beijing when it was revealed that one of Russia's star skaters - figure skaters - Kamila Valieva, had tested positive for a banned drug. But Russia was so important, such a big player, that leagues just kept allowing their athletes to compete, giving them more and more chances. That has come to a crashing halt now with the invasion of Ukraine. Russian athletes, including superstars like Valieva, are now on the sidelines for the foreseeable future.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Brian Mann telling us about the decision to ban athletes from Russia and Belarus from the Paralympic Games, which begin tomorrow in Beijing. Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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