A woman wears a protective mask as she passes a monument for Austrian writer and journalist Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (the term masochism is derived from his name) decorated with the same mask in the central of western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Nov. 5, 2009, during that year's deadly flu outbreak.
For a country of its size, per capita income, shrinking younger population, thievish government, puny economy and even punier luck, Ukraine somehow has been pretty good at one unlikely thing.
We have been among the countries with the highest medal count at the last two Olympic Games (11th and 13th out of some 80 participants who won any medals). Also, at the recent Paraolympics in London we have come in fourth.
There are some very good athletes living among us.
For instance, we have two big dudes who have been controlling the heavyweight division in professional boxing for years. And we have one little dude who can do 4,000 pushups in two hours at the age of seven. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKakIUxDMvQ&feature=player_embedded
We also have some of the best football players, although this may not say much because we often are disappointed in them – in their game and in their political choices.
But, all in all, we are a nation of great sportsmen. And it often bewildered me why….
When it comes to sports we can finally be achievers.
So what is it? The Cossack blood? Could the gene of the restless and brave ancestors has lasted in us this long?.. Then why are there so many inglorious, conniving, lying, fearful, vile, weak and despicable men out there? Just look at Verkhovna Rada… But then, again, they are no athletes. In parliamentary brawls they go for the throat and hit the weakest colleagues hardest.
No sportsmanship there.
Yes, the ancestry is one explanation for our achievements in sports, but there is one more. One singular factor that towers over the rest, like having a good trainer, good genetics, supportive family, and the government who tells you to do sports and not drugs.
That factor is this: how well the athlete deals with pain.
Enduring those invariable hurts and aches that your body is signaling back to you when you try to overwork it is key. Knowing how to overcome pain or even put it to your advantage is very important.
The success of our paraolympians in London is especially telling in this respect. Disabled people who bravely compete in sports at this level have to endure double the pain.
And, thankfully, most Ukrainians are no strangers to it.
There are few nations in the world with a less tortured history.
It is often said that Ukrainian essence is acquiescence.
Before God, before parents, before tradition and even before one’s own cantankerous wife. Ukrainians are survivors a lot more than anarchists no matter the mutinous traits instilled in their character by the free and endless steppes. They know how to keep the mutiny in check till more opportune times come, how to endure. As Rilke once wrote, "Who speaks of victory? To endure is everything."
That must be about us.
And to be a survivor one has to know pain.
Our folks do know a thing or two about it. They even know how to live with pain, because they have learned how to befriend it.
When I hit 40, I decided to pick up running. Like they say you should when are over the hill already. Zhenia, my buddy from the old weightlifting years in Kyiv, suggested longer distances. |Тhis way you can run away a lot farther from whatever it is you are running away from.”
He pointed to a higher dune I could barely see along the Atlantic shore we vacationed at with our families.
It took us an hour to reach the dune. Zhenia arrived there with his immutable enthusiasm of an athlete; I, with pain and whining. I had never run this far before.
My buddy laughed at me and said that pain was a good thing. And that I should know it.
“Just ask Leopold von Sacher-Masoch,” he said. “A native of Lviv.”
Oleksiy Opanasiuk is a freelance writer in Kyiv.