Russian, Belarusian players to return as neutrals: ITTF

IOC Executive Board meeting in Lausanne
A view shows the Olympic Rings in front of the Olympic House, headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), during the executive board meeting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), in Lausanne, Switzerland, March 28, 2023. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

March 31 (Reuters) - The governing body of table tennis said it will follow the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) guidance on Russian and Belarusian players by allowing them to compete as neutrals.

The IOC issued a set of recommendations on Tuesday for international sports federations that will allow athletes from the two countries to return since their ban last year following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which Belarus helped facilitate.

The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) said on Thursday players from Russia and Belarus could resume competing "under strict conditions of neutrality" from May at the earliest, but cannot enter that month's world championships after missing qualifiers.

The governing body, which will create its own guidelines to specify the conditions of their participation, said it was "acutely aware of the potential dialogues sport can create".

It cited the example of 'ping-pong diplomacy', when American table tennis players travelled to China in 1971 for a series of exhibition games which helped thaw relations between the two countries.

"Table tennis has a long history of bringing people together even when political ties have been tenuous," it said.

"It can build bridges, leading to better understanding among peoples, and open the door for peacebuilding in ways that exclusion and division cannot.

"The ITTF reiterates its call for peace and unequivocally condemns the war in Ukraine. It stands in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and will continue to support the Ukrainian table tennis community."

The International Fencing Federation's (FIE) decision to reverse a ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes earlier this month has already prompted a backlash, with organisers in Germany and Denmark cancelling their events.

Ukrainian fencers backed their federation's decision to boycott competitions featuring Russians and Belarusians, while more than 300 fencers signed a letter asking the IOC and FIE to reconsider their decision.

Reporting by Hritika Sharma in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Rutherford

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