Valerii Sushkevych, president of the Ukrainian Paralympic Committee, speaks to the media during a press conference ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympic Games in Beijing on March 3, 2022.
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March 3, 2022 7:48 AM EST

Ukrainian Paralympians vowed to make the Beijing Games another “front line” in their country’s fight for freedom, after Russian and Belarusian athletes were banned from the competition in a stunning reversal.

“There is one front line for our battle, our warriors,” Valerii Sushkevych, president of the Ukrainian National Paralympic Committee, said at press conference in Beijing on Thursday. “And the second front line is here, in Beijing.”

“We could have given up and not come to Beijing. This was the situation. Bombs were exploding, missiles were exploding,” he added. “Everyone understood that if Ukraine was not present at the Paralympics Games, there’s no existence of Ukraine.”

Officials earlier in the day reversed a controversial decision to let Russia and Belarus participate in the Beijing Paralympics after “multiple” athletes threatened a boycott that could have halted the games, the International Paralympic Committee said in a statement. The “situation” in the athlete villages was escalating and ensuring the safety of athletes had become “untenable,” it added.

That about-face came less than a day after the IPC said it would allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as neutral athletes with colors, flags and other national symbols removed when events open Friday.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine came days after a Winter Games that China wanted to be “splendid and simple,” it has now given Beijing a difficult decision with the Paralympics.

China had warned athletes before the Games that speaking out on sensitive issues came with consequences, suggesting the Communist Party would take a restrictive interpretation of the Olympic Charter. The document says “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

President Xi Jinping will attend the opening ceremony Friday in Beijing in a much different situation than when he and Putin declared their partnership had “no limits” ahead of the Winter Games. China has struggled to respond to the military action by its close diplomatic partner Russia, providing support to Putin at the United Nations while also upholding the Ukraine’s sovereignty rights.

The IPC’s decision came a day after the UN voted overwhelmingly to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week.

“At the IPC we are very firm believers that sport and politics should not mix,” IPC President Andrew Parsons said in the statement. “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.”

— With assistance from Isabella Steger and Jenni Marsh.

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