The 2016 Rio Paralympic Games saw their first political protest last night when Andrey Fomochkin, an employee of the Belarusian sports ministry, draped the Russian flag around his shoulders as he marched in with his country during the Opening Ceremony at Maracana Stadium. Fomochkin’s credentials were revoked by the International Paralympic Committee, the IPC, following the act of protest, sparking outrage across pro-Russian social and traditional media.
“I’d like to thank the media for ensuring there was a picture of the individual on Twitter pretty quickly” said IPC head of media Craig Spence said to the BBC. “We managed to locate that individual and confiscate the flag pretty much within 20 minutes of the flag being displayed.”
Fomochkin, according to Russia Today, is a former Soviet winter triathlon champion who also previously served as Belarus’ Deputy Sport and Tourism Minister.
The Russian Paralympic Team was banned from Rio’s Paralympic Games by IPC in early August due to a country-wide doping scandal involving the Russian Olympic and Paralympic teams. The decision has been met with frustration from not just the Russian Paralympians themselves, but also sparked outrage from the Kremlin.
Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
“It’s seen as a political protest because he carried a Russian flag when he’s in the Belarus delegation, and when you’ve got the president of the Belarus National Paralympic Committee being so vocal in the media before these Games saying he disagreed with our decision, then it’s a pretty easy conclusion that it was a political protest,” said Spence to the BBC.
Spence also said that the IPC checks all teams for Rule 50 compliance prior to entering the Opening Ceremonies.
“That flag was pretty well hidden on that person because all of the Belarus team was searched before they went out and the flag was somewhere on the person that we didn’t notice.” said Spence.
The Russian Foreign Ministry quickly weighed in on Fomochkin’s ejection from the Games across multiple pro-Russian and Russian State Media channels.
“This is real fascism,” said Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, in an interview with the Moscow Times. “It’s just disguised as something civilized and is allegedly part of the law.”
Natalia Eismont, press secretary for President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, addressed the incident on Russian radio station “Govorit Moskva.”
“It was the initiative of the Belarusian delegation to carry the Russian flag at the opening ceremony,” said Mironchik in the interview. “However, I would like to stress that this is the state position, and the position of the President of the country and the head of our Paralympic Committee. We stand in solidarity with the Russian Paralympians.”
Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, similarly praised Fomochkin’s political statement .
“It was a bold act. What the Belarus Paralympians did is worthy of admiration. And we certainly treasure this gesture of solidarity with our Paralympians, who were unjustly stripped of a chance to take part in the Paralympics,” said Peskov.
Russian embassies worldwide quickly heralded the act on social media. The Russian Embassy in South Africa tweeted “#Russia’s flag was raised at #Rio2016 #Paralympics against all odds, thanks to our friends from #Belarus!”
— Rus Embassy in RSA (@EmbassyofRussia) September 8, 2016
The Russian Mission to Geneva also tweeted its support for the Belarusian sports ministry employee, thanking the Belarusian team for carrying the Russian flag.
A member of the Belarus team waves a Russian flag during the opening ceremony of the Paralympics in Rio. pic.twitter.com/2lGFnmKnMP
— Valentin Lossev (@lossev_valentin) September 8, 2016
The IPC’s decision to ban the entire Russian team is in response to the country’s systematic doping program, which after many years of investigations, was finally brought to light in July. Investigator Richard McLaren from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) published a report on Team Russia’s years of doping that included findings regarding actions taken to cover up such activity during the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games. The report stated that Russia’s state-backed doping program led to samples going missing from Paralympic athletes.
This decision fell in stark contrast to the International Olympic Committee’s decision to allow a partial-Russian Olympic Team compete in Rio in August. The IOC only banned the Russian track and field team. Russia finished in 4th place in the medal totals, winning 56 medals, including 19 gold.
Meanwhile in Russia, the Russian Paralympic Team is hosting their own “Paralympic Games,” and hosted a ceremony in Moscow’s Crocus City Hall.
“During a picturesque ceremony, all Russian athletes who were prohibited from taking part in the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro paraded through the concert hall, the same way as at the opening ceremonies for the global Olympic and Paralympic Games,” RT reported.