Ukrainian athletes fight for survival at the Olympic Games in Paris

KIEV, Ukraine – For Ukrainian hurdler Anna Ryzhykova, every step on the Paris Olympic track will have significance that goes far beyond the time she achieved.

Their competitions are no longer purely individual battles, but war on another front. Their goal is not only gold, but also to draw the world’s attention to their country’s fight for survival against Russia.

“You don’t do it for yourself anymore,” she says. “Winning a medal just for yourself, being a champion, realising your ambitions – that’s inappropriate.”

But the broader war is making it increasingly difficult for Ukraine, once a post-Soviet sporting power, to win those headline-grabbing medals, according to an Associated Press analysis.

Figure skater Oksana Baiul won the first Olympic gold for Ukraine at the 1994 Winter Olympics, just three years after the country declared independence. The medal ceremony in Lillehammer, Norway, was postponed as organizers searched for a recording of the Ukrainian national anthem and eventually obtained a recording of the Ukrainian team.

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Pole vaulter Sergei Bubka and the Klitschko boxing brothers – Vitali and Wladimir, Olympic super-heavyweight champions in 1996 – were among the other athletes who put the new nation on the sporting map. At the Summer Games, Ukraine outperformed all former Soviet and Eastern Bloc countries – except Russia and Romania in 2000 – and always finished among the top 13 nations in terms of total number of medals won until London 2012.

Ukrainian performance began to decline after 2014. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea that year was followed by eight years of armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow supported armed separatists before launching its even deadlier full-scale invasion in 2022 to subjugate the entire country.

Ukraine’s haul of 11 medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics was its smallest as an independent nation, and it plummeted to 22nd place in the country rankings. At the pandemic-postponed 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Ukraine recovered to 16th place, but only one of its 19 medals was gold – another new low.


The graph shows the medals won by Ukraine at the Summer Olympics since 1996.

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Part of the explanation is that fighting costs lives and resources. Equally important is the psychological toll that war places on athletes.

As they trained their bodies and skills for Paris, they wrestled with their conscience. Athletes had to explain to themselves and others why they were still competing while soldiers were dying and lives were being destroyed. Some emerge from the journey with their priorities rearranged and a renewed motivation to fight for the larger national cause through sport.

“Our victories are intended to draw attention to Ukraine,” says Ryzhykova.

At the 2012 Olympic Games in London, she ran in the Ukrainian 400-meter relay team that won a bronze medal, and in Tokyo she finished fifth in her specialty, the 400-meter hurdles. Any medals she wins this summer will be for her country in every sense of the word.

“The only time you get attention is when you win, when you perform, when you’re on the podium,” she said in an AP interview. “The higher you are, the more attention you get.”

Olympic hurdles for Ukraine at Paris 2024

Hurdler Anna Ryzhykova trains at the sports center in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. Her competitions are no longer just an individual battle, but a war on another front. Her goal is not just gold, but to draw the world’s attention to her country’s fight for survival against Russia. “You don’t do it for yourself anymore,” she says. “To win a medal just for yourself, to be a champion, to realize your ambitions – that’s inappropriate.” (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Yevgeny Maloletka

A sporting power is destroyed

More than 500 sports facilities have been destroyed since the war began in February 2022. Back then, Russian missiles hit the Lokomotiv sports center in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, depriving Ukrainian swimmers of the training facility they had used before winning the team bronze medal in Tokyo. The gleaming Neptune swimming center in Mariupol was bombed during the Russian siege of that devastated port city and is now occupied, thwarting diver Stanislav Olifertschyk’s plans to use it as his Olympic training base for Paris.

High jumper Oleh Doroshchuk, 23, one of Ukraine’s most promising young athletes at the Paris Olympics, has learned to ignore the aid sirens over his hometown of Kropyvnytskyi in central Ukraine so they don’t disrupt his training. Still, Doroschuk says that after the particularly deadly Russian attacks that regularly rock the country, he was forced to look within himself and ask himself whether it was morally right for him to be “just training” while other men defended the front lines.

“I think everyone has these thoughts,” he said. “Many people I know are fighting, and some have been killed.”

Throughout Ukraine, airstrikes often result in training failures.

“You sit in the bomb shelter for an hour, then come out for 15 minutes and start warming up and doing the movements again. Then the alarm goes off again and you go back into the bomb shelter,” says Ryzhykova. That’s why she trains mainly abroad.

Olympic hurdles for Ukraine at Paris 2024

Hurdler Anna Ryzhykova steps onto the platform before her departure for Poland at the train station in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. “Our victories are meant to draw attention to Ukraine,” Ryzhykova said. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Yevgeny Maloletka

Sport in mourning

Among the tens of thousands of dead and injured in Ukraine are athletes, coaches and others in sports organizations who together helped Ukraine stand on its own two feet as a sporting nation after breaking away from the former Soviet sports machine.

Some of the athletes killed might have had a chance to qualify for Paris. Some of the coaches had nurtured future generations.

Ryzhykova lost a mentor who had sparked her passion for the sport. Coach Valentyn Vozniuk and his wife Iryna Tymoshenko were among the 46 people killed when a supersonic missile struck an apartment building in Dnipro in 2023.

Vozniuk, 75, headed the Dnipro Sports School, where Ryzhykova began athletics and where she still trains on trips home.

“He was always very cheerful, a happy person who did everything to make the children come, feel comfortable and stay,” she remembers.

She fears that the war will accelerate the downward spiral in Ukrainian sport. “Few children come to training now, many have left,” she notes.

“Sometimes you get depressed and feel like you don’t want to do anything,” she says. “And when you’re in a training camp and you read the news about a massive missile attack, you worry about all your relatives and loved ones.”

Against Russia in Paris

Another ordeal awaits Ukrainian athletes in Paris: they will likely face competitors from Russia and their ally Belarus.

The International Olympic Committee excluded the two nations from team sports in Paris, but did not give in to Ukrainian requests for a complete exclusion.

Instead, Russians and Belarusians who pass a two-stage vetting process will compete individually as neutrals. They must not have publicly supported the invasion and must not have any ties to the military or state security agencies.

The IOC has announced that dozens of Russian and Belarusian athletes have qualified.

The prospect of personal encounters is difficult for Ryzhykova.

“I can’t even imagine this anger,” she says. “How can I hold back, how can I look at her?”

Their priority remains to keep Ukraine and the memory of its losses and victims in focus.

“We cannot be without a position, standing on the sidelines – because we are opinion leaders. And we must be a support for our people,” says Ryzhykova.

“It will be a challenge at these Olympic Games because there is no room for defeat or injury,” she adds. “It’s hard, but it’s motivation and responsibility at the same time.”