Russian and Belarusian fencers are set to return to FIE competitions ©Getty Images

Russian and Belarusian athletes will be allowed to return to competing in International Fencing Federation (FIE) events, following a decision at today's Extraordinary Congress held online.

This is set to become effective from the second half of April 2023, in time for the Fencing World Championships in Milan in July and enabling them to participate in qualifying for the Paris 2024 Olympics.

A decision on whether both countries' athletes can compete under their own flag will depend on the recommendation of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), whose President Thomas Bach is a former fencer and who won a gold medal in the sport at Montreal 1976.

The vote to allow Russian and Belarusian fencers to compete in individual competitions "subject to possible future IOC recommendations/decisions, and in compliance with conditions of neutrality and individual eligibility" was comfortably passed by 89 to 46, with one abstention.

Russian and Belarusian teams were allowed to return by 85 votes to 51, with three abstentions, while officials were permitted to attend FIE events by 88 votes to 48, with two abstentions.

Two attempts from the Ukrainian Fencing Federation to block the move failed to pass.

Members decided by 84 to 46 against excluding a vote on Russia and Belarus' return from the agenda, and by the same margin against delaying the vote until a decision is reached on an ethics complaint filed against both countries.

Both of these motions required a three-quarters majority to be approved.

Russian Fencing Federation President Ilgar Mammadov thanked members who supported it in the vote.

"I am grateful to my colleagues from national foreign federations for those who supported us both openly and behind the scenes and helped," Mammadov said.

"Serious work was done, this is the work of a great team of people."

Ukraine made two unsuccessful attempts to delay a vote on the return of Russian and Belarusian athletes to international fencing competitions ©Getty Images
Ukraine made two unsuccessful attempts to delay a vote on the return of Russian and Belarusian athletes to international fencing competitions ©Getty Images

Russia's five-time Olympic sabre medallist Sofia Velikaya also praised countries who voted in favour of their return.

"I am very happy with the decision made, I believed that this should happen, and I want to thank colleagues from different countries who voted for our return," she told Russian state-run news agency TASS.

"Sport should provide equal rights and conditions, and common sense finally prevailed.

"Despite the fact that this is the most wonderful news lately, we understand the upcoming difficulties.

"All this time we have been preparing, we will solve the problems in stages, we are ready to overcome the difficulties."

USA Fencing had been one of the most vocal opponents of Russia and Belarus returning to FIE competitions.

Its chief executive Phil Andrews said the governing body is "disappointed, frustrated and disturbed - though not all that surprised - at the outcome of today’s vote"

"This vote comes just over 100 days after 77 per cent of the members of this same body voted to extend the ban," Andrews said.

"What has changed in those 104 days? 

"Many will speculate, but one thing is painfully clear: Russia has not ended its unlawful and immoral assault on Ukraine - an invasion that has resulted in thousands of senseless deaths, an unprecedented refugee crisis and the destruction of Ukraine’s sporting infrastructure, notably including the evacuation of its fencing athletes. 

"Also concerning is the fact that these athletes may be permitted to compete under the flags of Russia and Belarus, subject to IOC recommendations. 

"If this occurs, it would ensure that each international fencing competition includes a painful and divisive visual reminder of the tragedy still unfolding in Ukraine."

He added that the decision sends "a message to the world that a majority of the international fencing community is ready to look the other way and welcome back fencers funded by and supported by the Russian Government", some of whom have "direct ties to the military".

USA Fencing is also set to work with its Athletes Council and athletes to "ensure they are supported during this difficult time", given the prospect of competing against Russian and Belarusian fencers.

Self-suspended FIE President Alisher Usmanov, left, is a close friend of IOC President Thomas Bach, right ©FIE
Self-suspended FIE President Alisher Usmanov, left, is a close friend of IOC President Thomas Bach, right ©FIE

The Paris 2024 qualification period for fencing begins on April 3 and is due to run until April 1 next year, incorporating World and Continental Championships and World Cups in the individual and team rankings.

Grand Prix and satellite competitions also contribute to individual rankings.

Today's decision means Russian and Belarusian fencers are set to be eligible for all qualifying events.

Athletes from Russia and Belarus had been banned from FIE events since March last year because of the war in Ukraine, in line with IOC recommendations.

The invasion of Ukraine also led to Uzbek-born Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov temporarily stepping aside as FIE President after the European Union imposed sanctions on him, and Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) President Stanislav Pozdnyakov being removed from his position at the head of the European Fencing Confederation.

Greek official Emmanuel Katsiadakis has been serving as Interim FIE President since Usmanov opted to temporarily "suspend the exercise of my duties".

Usmanov and Bach have long been close friends, a relationship not affected by Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

A vote on the status of Russian and Belarusian athletes had initially been due to take place in November last year at the FIE Congress, but members voted to delay this until the Extraordinary Congress.

Russian athletes, competing under the ROC banner due to anti-doping sanctions, topped the fencing medals table at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics with three golds.

Most International Federations have followed the IOC's recommendations and blocked Russian and Belarusian athletes from their competitions because of the war in Ukraine, although some including the International Judo Federation have allowed them to compete as neutrals.

The IOC has said it is "exploring a pathway" for their return to international competitions under "strict conditions" of neutrality, although this has sparked an angry reaction in Ukraine and calls for greater clarity on the definition of neutrality by a group of 35 nations.