Ukrainian Paralympic athletes face off in Beijing with heavy hearts

ZHANGJIAKOU, China — Valerii Sushkevych, the president of the Ukrainian Paralympic Committee, can tell in the puffy pink eyes of his ath...


ZHANGJIAKOU, China — Valerii Sushkevych, the president of the Ukrainian Paralympic Committee, can tell in the puffy pink eyes of his athletes that they haven’t slept.

He knows that they are overwhelmed with worry and fear for the fate of their families and their country, which is under attack by the Russian army.

He sees the athletes glued to their cellphones, clinging to every last bit of internet connectivity with their loved ones before they are cut off, and he sees them wiping away tears before heading outside to compete on behalf of their country.

They feel helpless, except in one respect.

“Our soldiers have battles in Ukraine,” Sushkevych said in a moving interview Monday, parts of which were conducted with an interpreter. “We, the Paralympic team, have our battles in Beijing. If we didn’t come here, it would be like a loss of position, like a surrender.

Ukraine’s Paralympic team, one of the most successful teams per capita in the world, has been in China since the last days of February, thanks in part to Sushkevych’s logistical efforts. Now they are refugees with a purpose.

“We are here to represent our country,” said Oksana Shyshkova, who won Ukraine’s fourth gold medal in cross-country skiing on Monday, “to glorify our country, to tell the world that the Ukraine exists”.

His impassioned and mournful appeal was one of many made in recent days by Ukrainian athletes after the end of their races, a far cry from their normal, upbeat mood after victory.

The Paralympic Games, very popular in Ukraine, are usually a time of celebration, good humor and camaraderie for athletes, like a holiday, Sushkevych said.

“Today, no,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I ask athletes in the morning, ‘Did you sleep?’ I ask another: “Have you slept? They say, ‘No, no.’ They have dull, sad faces. The atmosphere is very difficult. We all think of home.

Sushkevych called the operation to transport the 54-person delegation, including athletes, coaches and staff, to China during an invasion a minor miracle. But now he has the opposite task. When the games end on Sunday, he has to get everyone out of China.

But how far? The return of a large group to a beleaguered country is unlikely at this time, so Sushkevych, his staff and his wife, Yuliia, spend much of their time devising parallel plans to move everyone safely to an undetermined European country, like a kind of transit ground. .

“For how long?” He asked. “Days? Weeks? Are we staying in hotels, and how do we pay for that? We don’t have the money. We don’t have the answers yet.”

Together with the International Paralympic Committee, they were also organizing an unusual and solemn demonstration for peace in the villages of the three athletes, most likely on Thursday.

Sushkevych, 67, had polio as a child and uses a wheelchair. A permanent defender of people with disabilities, he was a Paralympic swimmer and a member of the Ukrainian parliament. He has spent the last three years as the Ministry’s commissioner responsible for the rights of persons with disabilities.

He has become something of a patron saint of people with disabilities in Ukraine, and many have recently reached out to him on social media or text messages asking for help.

He said that in Beijing he received several text messages from a woman in a wheelchair who was stuck on the 17th floor of a building that had been evacuated because the elevator was not working. He said the texting stopped recently and when he called her there was no response. He feared the worst.

“People in wheelchairs cannot run away from bombs,” he said. “Blind people cannot run away from rockets.”

Sushkevych noted that the invasion took place after the Olympics but during the Paralympics, “as if to say, it doesn’t matter, we have no value,” he said.

Most of the Ukrainian athletes arrived in China from their training site near Milan, Italy, determined to raise awareness of the suffering suffered during a terrifying assault.

Ukraine has won eight medals, the third behind China and Canada, after three days of competition, each a chance to send a message.

“With the means of sport, we can stand in front of you to tell the world what is happening,” Shyshkova told reporters.

She described the relentless pressure and exhaustion under which Ukrainian athletes operate, as well as the physical and emotional toll of their isolation.

Another gold medalist, Vitalii Lukianenko, 43, was so distraught and physically exhausted the morning of his race on Saturday that Sushkevych, the committee chairman, wondered if Lukianenko should run.

Lukianenko is from Kharkiv, a city recently attacked by Russia. His family sought refuge underground.

“I look at his physical condition, very red eyes,” Sushkevych said. “I thought, no, he can’t run.”

But Sushkevych said that once at the start line of his biathlon event, Lukianenko flipped a switch in his mind, vowing to feel no pain or fatigue on the course, and he finished first in what is surely his last Paralympic Games.

“If you know the situation, it was a miracle,” Sushkevych said.

The three medalists of this race came from Ukraine.

But medals are not the only indication of courage and willpower. Juliia Batenkova-Bauman, 38, left her husband and daughter in Kiev when she traveled to Italy for training weeks before the invasion. She shows up to her family every hour when she’s not running or training.

“When I can talk to them, I can hear the gunfire and the sounds of shelling,” Batenkova-Bauman said through an interpreter, “and they can see the rockets from their window. interior.

Batenkova-Bauman, who spoke to several different news outlets, cried in nearly every conversation. She said she barely slept for days, and when she did, she was haunted by nightmares.

Sushkevych has known Batenkova-Bauman for many years, and after learning how she reacted after her run, he stopped, apologized and wiped the tears from her cheeks and eyes with a tissue.

He knew that Batenkova-Bauman was not in good condition to run and he saw her fall twice in the 15 kilometer race. He implored his coach to remove her from the course, but the coach said he had already tried and failed. She finished fifth, outside of the medals.

“You could look and say that’s not an achievement,” Sushkevych said, his voice cracking. “It’s an accomplishment. It’s the accomplishment.

Amy Chang Chien contributed report.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Ukrainian Paralympic athletes face off in Beijing with heavy hearts
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