Sabre fencing great Orga Kharlan has said that Russian and Ukrainian athletes representing military groups do not think about political arguments when they are on a podium together.
Four-time world champion Kharlan has refused to become embroiled in the debate surrounding Yaroslava Mahuchikh, her compatriot who was summoned to speak to Ukraine’s defense ministry after embracing Maria Lasitskene, the newly-crowned Russian high jump champion, at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Kharlan, who has received offers to represent other countries but remained loyal to her homeland, said she had her own “firm opinion” on the fierce debate but “will not voice it”, fearing that she will be attacked for anything she says.
“[In] Rio, [I had] the same situation on the podium [after winning bronze at the 2016 Olympics], where I stood with two Russians. And it began: ‘How can you stand to their anthem?’ What? I am on the Olympic podium.
“After that, I don’t comment. ‘Sport outside politics’ is a subjective thing. It’s hard.
“Practically all of us represent some kind of military organization, army and so on – each of us had instructions [in that setting].
“But when you are on the podium, you already have [an altered] idea of what you are doing. You don’t think about the consequences.”
Some critics of Mahuchikh claimed she had brought “shame” upon her country through her actions, while others, including the Mayor of her home city of Dnipro, rose to her defense.
The threat of athletes potentially being reprimanded by their country for voicing non-sporting opinions has come under particular scrutiny because of Kristina Timanovskaya, the Belarusian sprinter who fled to Poland after being ordered home for criticizing her country’s Olympic bosses.
Timanovskaya now looks set to run for her new country, and there have even been suggestions from observers that Mahuchikh could be tempted to stop representing Ukraine if the off-track controversy surrounding her escalates.
Kharlan, who also took third place at the 2012 Games, had it put to her that Russia had made her an offer to switch sporting citizenship.
“Yes, it was a long time ago,” she replied. “Nine years ago. Once. I can’t say from whom.”
She refused, she reasoned, “because I have no idea how I will fence for another country with a different flag in a different team,” adding that she was “principled” about “fencing against your team.”
“Although, let’s be honest, our [sporting] conditions are not very good [in Ukraine],” she said. “It is easy for someone to do [that], understanding that it will be better [in another country]. I’m not one of those.”
Kharlan was eliminated in the round of 32 at the 2020 Games, admitting that she arrived in Tokyo in sub-peak condition and had suffered psychological struggles.
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