Russian gymnast who wore pro-war ‘Z’ on podium gets one-year ban


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A Russian gymnast who wore a pro-war “Z” on his uniform while standing on the podium at an international event has been given a one-year ban.

Ivan Kuliak was retroactively disqualified from the March event and instructed to return the bronze medal and prize money he won, the Disciplinary Commission of the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation announced Tuesday. Kuliak will not be allowed to participate in any event sanctioned by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), the sport’s global governing body, for one year starting from May 17.

Kuliak, 20, was competing in Doha, Qatar, at an event on the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Cup series when he won his medal in parallel bars, just two days before FIG enacted a ban of indefinite length on athletes and officials from Russia and Belarus. Like many sports governing bodies, FIG was acting in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine that has been supported by Belarus.

The winner in men’s parallel bars in Doha was a Ukrainian athlete, Illia Kovtun. When the 18-year-old Kovtun ascended the podium to receive his gold medal, he reportedly shook the hand of the runner-up, Kazakhstan’s Milad Karimi, but shunned Kuliak.

Kovtun later said he did not initially notice the makeshift “Z” on Kuliak’s chest. He told International Gymnast Online that he spotted it later while looking at photos of the event.

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“It was not easy to compete with the Russians, but at that moment we all were convinced that sports is out of politics,” Kovtun told the website. “Unfortunately, the Russian guy Ivan showed something completely different — not the ability to compete with dignity and sportsmanship, but mixed sports with politics.”

“Z” is not a part of the Russian alphabet, but it was notably marked on Russian tanks and other military vehicles as they massed along the Ukrainian border in February, ahead of the invasion. The symbol quickly gained popularity and spread among supporters of the war. At a Victory Day parade last week in Moscow, traditionally meant to commemorate the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany in World War II but also used this year as a rally in favor of the Ukrainian invasion, Olympic gymnast Angelina Melnikova posted a photo of herself holding a “Z” sign.

“If there was a second chance and I would again have to choose whether to go out with the letter ‘Z’ on my chest or not, I would do exactly the same,” Kuliak told state-owned English-language Russia Today television network in March (via Reuters).

Kuliak said that after seeing the symbol on military vehicles he looked into its meaning and claimed it represents “for victory” and “for peace.”

“I didn’t wish anything bad on anyone; I just showed my position,” Kuliak added at the time. “As an athlete, I will always fight for victory and stand for peace.”

In March, FIG described Kuliak’s display as “shocking behaviour” and said it would ask the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation, an independent body formed in 2019, to open disciplinary proceedings.

If the ban on Russian gymnasts is still in effect a year from now, the ruling said, Kuliak’s punishment will be extended until six months after the ban ends. He has the right to appeal within 21 days.

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A member of the Russian parliament asserted there was no merit to Kuliak’s ban.

“It is surprising to me that several letters of the Latin alphabet were included in the list of banned [symbols] by the international federation and the organizers of the tournament in Doha,” Sports Committee Chairman Dmitry Svishchev said to Russian state news agency TASS (via Agence France-Presse). “When I looked at the regulations, I did not see that they were included in the list of prohibited signs, which is why a person can fall under sanctions.

“I personally do not see any offensive, discriminatory, nationalistic signs in Kuliak’s act, just as the entire normal civilized world does not see it,” he continued. “But, unfortunately, the Federation cannot cope with the pressure of politicians, big business tycoons, regulating the law or lawlessness in sports.”

In another reflection of the stance much of the international sports community has taken toward Russia and Belarus, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) announced Wednesday that it was not going to stage competitions in those countries “until further notice.” FIBA also withdrew Russian and Belarusian teams from their qualifying groups for the 2023 Basketball World Cup and undertook similar actions in other tournaments, including this year’s under-17 Women’s Basketball World Cup and a number of three-on-three events.





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