Not thanks, but in spite of: How Ukraine treats its Olympians

Ukrainian sport after 30 years of independence

President of the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine, Olympic champion Serhiy Bubka met with the athletes of the national team on the eve of the XXXII Olympic Games in Tokyo | NOC

Interview with journalist Dmitry Kovalevich first published on Friendship First on August 25*

Tony Seed: Dmitry, August 24th is the 30th anniversary of Ukrainian independence, which is being celebrated in different ways, it seems more in Canada than Ukraine itself. Can you give us your assessment of the situation that Ukrainian sport and athletes are facing? Perhaps you might start with the recent Olympics.

Dmitry Kovalevich: Traditionally, this holiday is celebrated with pomp – as if independence was the result of a long and stubborn armed struggle, and was not decided in the offices of Soviet officials in 1991.

Ukraine has been recently greeting its athletes who are returning from the Tokyo Olympics. Ukrainian athletes brought home one gold, six silver and 12 bronze medals. In the overall medal standings, Ukraine took 44th place in terms of the total number of medals among the participating national teams. Kosovo and Belarus became its neighbours. Bookmakers had originally predicted Ukraine from 16th to 20th place. 

Originally, the Minister of Youth and Sports of Ukraine, Vadim Gutsait, tried to motivate the athletes with the prospects of monetary rewards and inducements. He stated, “We have been working for two years so that athletes have the opportunity to prepare well for the competition. It’s time for us to remember that we are a sports country. Prize money for the Olympic medals remained unchanged – for the first place 120,000 dollars, for the second 80,000, for the third  55,000.” At the heart of Ukrainian sport there is no ethics, but a purely mercantile or mercenary interest.

Ukraine was represented by 157 athletes in 25 sports. Almost a third of the delegation (48 participants) were not athletes. Previously, the minimum composition was a delegation at the games in Rio de Janeiro in 2006, where 206 Ukrainian Olympians participated.

There are several reasons for the reduction in the composition: someone was disqualified, someone could not pass the standards such as use of illegal, performance-enhancing drugs, someone was crippled by the coronavirus. One athlete from the national team was expelled for criticizing the leadership of the Ukrainian Athletics Federation. Igor Glavan, who was supposed to represent Ukraine in the 50 km race walking, was expelled for his statements about corruption in the Ukrainian federation and alleged falsification of a doping case. Heavyweight Dmitry Chumak was expelled for an attempt to bribe the doping commission.

The results compare with its debut at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the most successful. The Ukrainians won a record 9 gold medals at that time, and almost every 7th athlete returned home with medals.  Ever since, its performance has declined. At the 2016 Rio Games, only one in every 16th member of the national team medaled; two gold, five silver and four bronze.

Recently, talented Ukrainian athletes have been leaving the country. Synchronized swimmer Maria Golyadkina won a gold medal, but for the national team of Russia, for which she left in 2015. 

In general, Ukraine could receive nine more medals if it treated its athletic talent better and created normal conditions for their life and training. 

In addition, former Ukrainian gymnast Artem Dolgopyat, who was born in the Dnieper, is now part of the Israeli national team and won gold at the Olympics. This was only the second in the history of Israel in the entire history of the games. 

Ukrainian Irina Zaretskaya has been competing for Azerbaijan since 2015. She won the 2018 world champion in the women’s kumite 68 kg event at the 2018 World Karate Championships held in Spain. She won silver in karate for Azerbaijan at Tokyo. Maria Stadnik, a four-time Olympic medalist, won bronze for Azerbaijan. Judoka Irina Kandzerskaya  – also bronze – but to Azerbaijan.. 

Anastasia Bliznyuk won silver in the rhythmic gymnastics of the Russian national team; Alexander Bondar won bronze in the diving competition; Gleb Bakshi won bronze with the Russian team in boxing. 

Ukrainian weightlifter Anton Plesnoy brought bronze to the Georgian national team.

TS: How is the political climate in the country affecting both the athletes, the sphere of sport and the rights of the people?

DK: Russophobia and Ukrainization plays an important role in this. At the departure ceremony (pictured above), Bubka handed over to the athletes personally a “talisman”, supposedly charged with victory, from the President of the country Volodymyr Zelenskyy: the flag of the state was signed by the Ukrainian military who participated in the civil war in Donbass.

At this Olympics, the bronze medalist in high jump, Yaroslava Maguchikh was photographed embracing the Russian athlete Maria Lasitskene, who won gold. According to the Ukrainian athlete, she wished to congratulate the Russian woman.

The scandalous Ukrainian nationalist Irina Farion, an ex-deputy from the Lviv region, publicly called the athlete “bio-waste” because with her gesture Yaroslava “confirms Putin’s thesis about a single people.” ”I appeal to her publicly: if you, a woman, had a child and your child was killed, would you hug the killer?” Moreover, she offered the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine to give back the medal of Yaroslava, as if she had the right to dispose of it. 

This young athlete – she is only 19 years old – was literally hounded on the Internet for the crime of the photo. The Ministry of Defence called her onto the carpet, since the athlete is also a junior lieutenant. The Deputy Minister of Defence,  Anna Malyar, declared “Athletes representing Ukraine at international competitions must understand that the Russian-Ukrainian war continues in Ukraine, and this imposes certain restrictions and responsibilities.” This outrageous stand violates all the highest ideals of sport and openly defies the principles of peace and friendship through sport and of “sports outside politics” which are supposed to be championed by the Olympic movement.

In response to the persecution, MP from the Opposition Platform For Life (Opposition Platform For Life) Vadim Rabinovich proposed sending the former director of the nationalist Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance and now People’s Deputy Volodymyr Vyatrovich and Larisa Nitsa herself to the next Olympic Games from Ukraine to be in charge of their “loyalty.”

After such a reception, it will not be surprising if Yaroslava chooses to compete for some other country and, possibly win the gold.

On the eve of the opening of the Games, Ukrainian nationalists noticed that Crimea was separated by the border from Ukraine on the website of the Olympics in a pop-up window, which caused another stream of indignation. Such “treacherous” cards periodically appear in Western publications, as well as on Ukrainian television, at least once a week, generating a wave of indignation among nationalists.

It should be noted that, unlike the Euro 2021 football championship, for the Tokyo Olympics, the Ukrainian authorities did not try to politicize the athletes’ uniforms. Initially there were no anti-Russian statements from the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine or the Ministry of Youth and Sports. 

TS: This gesture and camaraderie of the two high jumpers, Maguchikh and Lasitsken, was not at all reported by the Western sports media. Instead it briefly highlighted the Qatari and Italian high jumpers who shared the gold as one of the “good time” moments of the Games, or especially the organized defection of the Belarusan athlete, Kristina Timanovskaya, or doping by the Russian athletes, which was nowhere to be found.

What are the conditions the athletes must train in?

DK:  In 30 years, Ukraine has become officially the poorest country on the European continent where, according to the UN, nearly 10 million people are undernourished – the largest number on the continent.

Zhan Beleniuk, a people’s deputy and a Greco-Roman wrestler, who was the only Ukrainian gold medalist at the Tokyo Olympics and had won silver in Rio, complained that instead of coaches, Ukrainian officials went to the Games. “Quite a lot of functionaries went to the Olympics. I think it would be possible to leave a few employees of the Ministry at home, and send coaches instead,” he stated on his Facebook page. Beleniuk is also First Deputy Head of the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) Committee on Youth and Sports.

Pole vaulter Marina Kilipko protested that her personal trainer was not taken to the Olympics, therefore, she believes, she took only fifth place. The trainer, Viktor Shevtsov, has been working with her for 15 years. According to him, he learned that he was not traveling with his ward only 10 days before his scheduled departure. Head of the Ministry of Youth and Sports Vadim Gutsait tried to justify himself in the most absurd way, saying that they did not expect high results from Marina Kilipko, therefore they did not take her coach.

At the same time, the Legitimny Telegram channel believes that the low results of the Ukrainian national team are a consequence of the underfunding of sports for all 30 years of independence. 

“The whole point of 30 years of Ukraine’s Independence is in the results of the Olympic Games. Over the past 25 years, Ukraine has shown the worst medal result at the Summer Olympics, and the reason is simple – our officials only hold bright shows, and do not create a sports infrastructure. For us, our athletes are heroes, because despite the destroyed infrastructure and corruption, the athletes showed results and won medals,” writes Legitimny.

Olympian Anna Ryzhikova explains the low results of the Ukrainian team by the fact that Ukrainian athletes have to fight almost alone, while behind athletes from the rich Western countries there is a large resource group of people “forging victory.”

“I would not really like to say this, but I am ashamed of my country. When we go to the starts, there is a coach, a massage therapist, my family behind me as support. And a whole team works for them. It turns out that I am alone in the field against the whole army. Femke (Femke Bol, an athlete from the Netherlands, with whom Ryzhikova competed – editor’s note) is very strong, both as a person she is a good person and as an athlete. Young and beautiful, tall and exercising, I won’t say that she lies around and does nothing. But I myself am looking for a means of recovery, I do everything with trainers, masseurs, with those people whom I myself had to find and are helping me. On the other hand, they don’t even think about it, a scientific approach does it all for them,” says the Ukrainian runner.

In general, the presence of at least some number of Olympic medalists in Ukraine is not due to, but in spite of the general situation in the country, in spite of the policy of the Ministry of Sports and the government as a whole offering monetary rewards. Ukrainian athletes are trying to squeeze the maximum results out of themselves, acting alone, and sometimes even they have to fight off annoying nationalists and officials. Many of them, at the risk of injury, practice using shells and equipment inherited from the USSR with elderly Soviet coaches, many of whom are already retirees. For all their will to win, it is often not enough in modern sports. As a result, talented athletes are forced to leave Ukraine, where, moreover, the ruling elite are ready to persecute them for speaking the Russian language or for the “wrong” photo.

TS: Thank you Dmitry.

* Dmitry Kovalevich is a professional journalist and columnist for Ukrainia.ru, amongst other publications, and analyst for this blog. His Facebook site is the go-to place in social media for information and discussion on Ukraine.

Read more: the pole vaulting competition at the Rio Olympics

A common human activity, an underhanded action

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