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INTERVIEW – Paralympics – “War is a great motivator,” says Paralympic Director of Ukraine

Paralympic Winter Games 2022 in Beijing
Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympic Games – Zhangjiakou Paralympic Village, Zhangjiakou, China – March 10, 2022. Valerii Sushkevych, President of the National Paralympic Committee of Ukraine, addresses the media alongside the Ukrainian delegation. Thomas Lovelock/OIS/Handout via REUTERS

March 11, 2022

By Dhruv Munjal

ZHANGJIAKOU, China (Reuters) – Valerii Sushkevych knows only too well the emotional toll the war in Ukraine has taken on his athletes, but the president of the country’s Paralympic Committee says he also helped them at the Beijing Games, theirs to achieve the greatest yield of gold medals ever.

Ukraine’s Paralympic team barely made it to the Chinese capital due to logistical challenges caused by the war that began with the Russian invasion on February 24.

Ukrainian cities were heavily bombed by Russia during the team’s performances in Beijing, and more than two million refugees, mostly women and children, have now fled to neighboring European countries.

“It’s one of the reasons we’ve had such great results in these games. We won nine medals in one day (earlier in the week), including two podiums,” Sushkevych told Reuters at the Zhangjiakou Paralympic Village.

“This has never happened in our history. At the last World Championships they could only get fifth or sixth place. We had the World Championships in January and none of these athletes won medals. War is a great motivator, a strong motivator.”

For a relatively small country that is not considered a strong force in the Olympics, Ukraine has long been a powerhouse in parasports. In Beijing, the contingent has won a remarkable 25 medals, including nine golds, just behind China in the table.

The way to the podium was not easy: Most of the athletes have not slept much in the last two weeks out of concern for the fate of their families and are desperately hoping for positive news from home.

“Every morning they call their mother, father, grandmother, daughter and wait for an answer. And they’re so scared they might not get an answer,” said Sushkevych, 67, who suffered from polio as a child and later competed as a para-swimmer.

“It’s the reality of our lives now. Every day and every night we try to find out if our family is alive or not. It is terribly difficult to live with the dangers of this war.”

Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special operation” and denies shooting at civilians.

The invasion forced the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) to ban athletes from Russia and Belarus from participating in Beijing after previously allowing them to compete as neutrals.

Belarus was an important staging area for Russian troops.

SOLIDARITY

Sushkevych said he was “shocked” by the IPC’s initial decision, but added he was pleased that other affiliates had rallied around them and threatened a boycott if Russia and Belarus were allowed to attend.

“Solidarity is very important and I have great respect for all the countries that asked the IPC leaders to change their minds in one night.”

When asked if the ban was harsh, Sushkevych added: “You are the representatives of a country that has killed people. The Olympics is all about representation, so they had to cancel their participation.”

Some athletes in Ukraine have pledged to defend their homeland, but the Beijing Paralympians believe that by winning medals they can play an equally important role in the fight.

Paralympic participants are very popular in Ukraine and, unlike in some countries, their success is often cause for celebration.

“When they shoot in biathlon, they tell me they see what they can do for their country,” Sushkevych said.

Ukraine can pick up more medals at the cross-country events this weekend and work their way up to the top.

“We know how much our participation means to the Ukrainian people. We’re glad we’re fighting for them,” Sushkevych said.

(Reporting by Dhruv Munjal; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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