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Beijing Paralympics to open in storm of controversy over Ukraine invasion

Tensions in the athlete villages, threats of competition boycotts and an eleventh-hour reversal to ban Russian athletes have marred the lead-up to Friday’s opening of the Beijing Winter Paralympics.

Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine sent shockwaves through the Paralympic movement, with bitter wrangling over whether its athletes and those from ally Belarus – which hosted troops and military equipment – should be allowed to participate.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has urged sporting federations across the world to exclude athletes from the two countries.

On Wednesday, Paralympic organisers said the “harshest punishment” they could dish out was to allow athletes from those countries to compete as neutrals.

The decision was reversed less than 24 hours later, with organisers citing safety concerns and a volatile mood in the athletes village.

Multiple teams and athletes had threatened not to compete if the Russian and Belarusian athletes were present, which was “jeopardising the viability” of the Games, organisers said.

International Paralympic Committee president Andrew Parsons apologised to the athletes facing the ban, saying: “You are victims of your governments’ actions.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov swiftly condemned the ban as “monstrous”.

But countries including Britain, Ireland and Germany welcomed the ban and said athletes could now focus on competition.

“Given the horror of what is happening in Ukraine, we believe (the IPC) have made the correct decision for these Games,” Team Great Britain said.

A million Ukrainians have fled to neighbouring countries over the past week, and Russia has become a global pariah across the worlds of finance, diplomacy and sports. 

And Friday saw that isolation set to deepen with Moscow’s shelling of a major nuclear power plant.

The Ukraine delegation was overwhelmed with solidarity after arriving safely in Beijing on Wednesday after narrowly escaping bombings to make it to the ski slopes.

“I can say that this is a miracle that we managed to be here at the Paralympic Games,” Ukraine Paralympic committee president Valeriy Sushkevych told reporters.

“For us, it is a matter of principle to be here, it’s a symbol to show that Ukraine is alive.”

After an embarrassing policy U-turn, Games organisers will likely sigh with relief when the spotlight moves to the Bird’s Nest for the opening ceremony in the evening.

Coming just six months after the pandemic-delayed Paralympic Games closed in Tokyo, Beijing has become the first city to host the Winter and Summer Olympic series in a pared-down sport event held in a tightly closed bubble.

The opening ceremony, like all sporting events, will be held in controlled conditions with no tickets sold to the general public due to Covid fears. 

Sporting action kicks off Saturday with preliminary ice hockey matches, wheelchair curling round robins and alpine skiing and biathlon races.

While Olympic athletes last month faced treacherous blizzards and some competitions were forced to postpone, temperatures on the slopes at Zhangjiakou and Yanqing have warmed up in recent days, causing snow to melt.

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