War, anger cloud Ukrainian athletes’ path to Paris Olympics

Russian bombardments have wrecked training venues. Air raids disrupt training sessions. Athletes have lost family members and friends. Or they worry that they will.

Ukrainian sisters Maryna (left) and Vladyslava Aleksiiva speak during a practice session, in Kyiv

Ukrainian sisters Maryna (left) and Vladyslava Aleksiiva speak during a practice session, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Ukrainian diver Stanislav Oliferchyk proudly bears the name of his late grandfather, who died in brutalized Mariupol. Russia’s troops turned the Ukrainian port city into a killing zone in the process of capturing it. The elder Stanislav could no longer get the cancer treatment he needed in the ruins, his grandson says. He was 74 when he died last October.

Another victim of the months-long Russian siege of Mariupol was its gleaming aquatic center. Oliferchyk had planned to use the refurbished sports complex as his training base for the 2024 Paris Olympics. But it was bombed the same day last March as the city’s drama theater. The theater airstrike was the single deadliest known attack against civilians to date in the year-old Russian invasion. An Associated Press investigation determined that close to 600 people died.

So it takes no leap of the imagination to understand why Mariupol-born Oliferchyk is horrified by the idea that he and other war-traumatized Ukrainian athletes might have to put their anger and consciences aside and compete against counterparts from Russia and ally Belarus at next year’s Olympics.

“I’m angry most of the time. I just can’t stand it anymore when shelling happens,” said the 26-year-old Oliferchyk, a European champion in 3-meter mixed synchronized diving in 2019. “I want Russia to let us live in peace and stay away from us.”

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Defying fury from Ukraine and misgivings from other nations, the International Olympic Committee is exploring whether to allow Russians and Belarusians back into international sports and the Paris Games. The IOC says it is mission-bound to promote unity and peace — particularly when war is raging. It also cites United Nations human rights experts who argue, on non-discrimination grounds, that athletes and sports judges from Russia and Belarus shouldn’t be banned simply for the passports they hold.

For Ukrainian athletes setting their sights on Paris, the possibility of sharing Olympic pools, fields and arenas with Russian and Belarusian competitors is so repellent that some say they’d not go if it happens.

Sisters Maryna and Vladyslava Aleksiiva — who won Olympic bronze in artistic swimming’s team competition at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 — are among those who say they’d have to boycott.

“We must,” Maryna said during an Associated Press interview at their training pool in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

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Russia is the giant of their sport, previously called synchronized swimming, having won all the gold medals at the past six Olympics.

Completing each other’s sentences, the Ukrainian twins added: “Our moral feelings don’t allow us to stand near … these people.”

Oliferchyk worries that enmity could spill over if Ukrainians encounter Russians and Belarusians in Paris — a likely scenario given that Olympians will be housed and dine together in accommodation overlooking the River Seine in the city’s northern suburbs.

“Anything can happen, even a fight,” Oliferchyk said. “There simply cannot be any handshakes between us.”

Having to train in the midst of war also puts Ukraine’s Olympic hopefuls at a disadvantage. Russian strikes have destroyed training venues. Air raids disrupt training sessions. Athletes have lost family members and friends, or are consumed by worries that they will. Because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also closed the country’s airspace, traveling to international competitions has become an arduous odyssey — often of long train rides to neighboring Poland, for onward flights from there.

“Our athletes train while cruise missiles are flying, bombs are flying,” Ukrainian Sports Minister Vadym Guttsait said in an AP interview.

He recalled a meeting he took part in between IOC president Thomas Bach and Ukrainian cyclists given refuge in Swizterland.

“Bach asked one of the cyclists how she was doing,” the minister recounted. “She started crying. He asked why. She said that day they (Russian forces) attacked her city, where her parents were, and she was very nervous.”

“This is how every athlete feels about what is happening in Ukraine,” the minister said.

Ukraine’s artistic swim team, including the Aleksiiva sisters, used to train in the Lokomotiv sports center in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city. A Russian strike with powerful S-300 missiles wrecked the complex in September, the region’s governor, Oleh Syniehubov, said at the time. He posted photos showing a giant crater and severe damage to the exterior.

Maryna Aleksiiva said they used to think of the sports center as “our second home.” Their substitute pool in Kyiv doesn’t have the same broad depth of water, making it less suitable for practicing their underwater acrobatics, the sisters said. On a recent morning when they spoke to the AP, air raid sirens interrupted their training and they had to get out of the pool and take refuge in a bomb shelter until the all-clear sounded.

The power also flickered briefly off at times. Russia has been systematically bombarding Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure for months. When attacks shut off the pool’s heating, the water gets so cold that the sisters train in full-body wetsuits — far from ideal for their elegant sport.

“It’s hard to move,” Vladyslava said.

The terrors of war also take a mental toll.

“Every day we read the news — explosion, explosion, air alert,” Maryna said. “We feel so nervous about our relatives.”

Oliferchyk said he cannot imagine a handshake between Ukrainian and Russian athletes for “the next 50, 100 years.”

The Neptune arena in Mariupol where he wanted to train for Paris was wrecked by a Russian strike last March 16. As with Mariupol’s drama theater also destroyed that day, civilians were sheltering at the sports complex from bombardments. They included pregnant women who moved there after a Russian strike the previous week devastated a city maternity hospital. Video posted on Facebook by the region’s governor showed the Neptune’s shattered front and a gaping hole in its roof.

The IOC’s possible pathway out of sports exile for Russians and Belarusians would see them compete as “neutral athletes,” without national flags, colors or anthems.

That idea is a non-starter for Ukraine’s sports minister and athletes who resent that would-be Olympians from Russia and Belarus aren’t taking a stand against the invasion.

“They just do nothing and say nothing. And precisely because of their silence and inaction, all this horror is happening,” Oliferchyk said. “A neutral flag is not an option. It is not possible.”

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