Grigory Vovchinsky was the first to win a medal for Ukraine at the Paralympics in Beijing, and he was the first to broadcast the significance of that achievement in front of reporters’ microphones around the world. “My gold medal is for peace in Ukraine, for the people of Ukraine and for a world without war,” he said after winning the standing class biathlon sprint on the first day of competition.
It was Vovchinsky, 33, who spoke for Ukraine’s athletes on Thursday. They had gathered for a peace demonstration in the Paralympic Village, with the flags of the participating nations waving behind them. “Peace for all” they had written on a poster. Vowchinsky said: “They are bombing our children and women, I can’t believe it. This must be stopped immediately.” In one hand he held a microphone, in the other the hand of Valery Sushkevich, the head of the Ukrainian Committee, who sat next to him in a wheelchair.
The impressive performance of the Ukrainian team in Beijing began with a press conference by Sushkevich, 67. The day before the opening ceremony, he reported on the team’s arduous journey, which lasted four days and four nights. The team escaped by bus from Kyiv to Lviv, via Poland, Slovakia and Austria to Italy, where many athletes were still in the training camp.
“Our presence here at the Paralympic Games is not just a presence. It is a sign that Ukraine was, is and will remain a country,” Sushkevich said. The competitions? It would be difficult if a family member could die at any minute: “Mother, father, daughter, son,” he slowly listed.
The example of two athletes who gave up their races and justified this with the situation at home showed how quickly these competitions and the signals they can send become completely unimportant: Lijudmila Liaschenko and Anastasija Lalentina. Lalentina’s father, a soldier in the Ukrainian army, was captured by Russian soldiers, the team’s spokeswoman said. Liashenko canceled a planned launch after her home in Kharkov was destroyed by Russian bombing.
Ukraine has won 19 medals so far
Nevertheless, it is also the sporting success that accompanies these Paralympics for Ukraine. 19 medals, that was the status on Thursday. It is very likely that Ukraine will be among the top six nations in the Paralympic Games, winter and summer, for the tenth straight year. For years, this success has also had a political note: The summer sports center of the Ukrainian Paralympic athletes was built on the Crimean peninsula. Since the annexation by Russia in violation of international law in 2014, however, use has at least been complicated.
Ukraine’s success at the Paralympics has a lot to do with the head of the federation, Sushkevich, who has been using a wheelchair since contracting polio. He used to be a swimmer, which, with a disability in the Soviet Union, spoke for great resilience. In 1998 he was elected to the Ukrainian Parliament. And he has been President of the Paralympics Association for 25 years.
Among other things, a program called “Invasport” goes back to him: Every oblast, i.e. every province in Ukraine, has its own para-sports organization with appropriate training opportunities, says Lee Reaney from the English-language one Kyiv Post, the only Ukrainian journalist at the Paralympics. Para-sports, he says, are now receiving significant government funding.
2021 wrote the New York Times In an article on Ukraine’s para-athletes, President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the team before leaving for the Tokyo Summer Games and apologized that there was no president before him. In a country where progress on inclusion is problematic, sport is “an opportunity for people with disabilities to make a career,” says Reaney.
Sushkevich met Vladimir Putin at the 2014 Paralympics
As early as 2014, Sushkevich and his athletes gave well-received interviews in which they wished for peace. Back then, Russian soldiers were marching in Crimea while the Paralympics were being held in Sochi. “That’s the most cynical aspect,” said Sushkevich in his emotional press conference a week ago: that the Paralympics are again affected.
But of course the situation is hardly comparable. In 2014, Sushkevich reported that he was personally received by Vladimir Putin as a representative of his association: “He listened to me, that was important to me.” On Thursday, Grigory Vovchinsky, the cross-country skier and biathlete who has won gold, silver and bronze alone, said in Beijing: “I think that the Russian soldiers and the army are not people – they are animals.”
Meanwhile, a message came from Russia that once again had to sound cynical to the Ukrainians. A sports festival is to take place in Russia three days after the Paralympics. Up to 70 athletes will compete in cross-country skiing, biathlon, curling, snowboarding, alpine skiing and sledge ice hockey, the Paralympic winter sports. The competitions are to be held “under the Russian state flag and to the sounds of the Russian national anthem,” said official Sergei Artamonov, according to the TASS news agency. 71 Russian athletes were excluded in Beijing by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) only after severe criticism from almost all participating nations.
The event is scheduled to begin in Russia on March 16. The 20 Paralympic winter sports athletes from Ukraine will probably not be in their home country yet because it is impossible to return. Your return flight from Beijing is apparently going to another European country. Nothing more is currently known.