When Ukraine’s top tennis player, Elina Svitolina defeated Belarusian Victoria Azarenko at Wimbledon recently, she refused as usual to shake hands with her Belarusian opponent.
“I have repeated many times: until the Russian troops leave Ukraine, until we take back our territories, we will not shake hands,” she said.
Journalists at Wimbledon immediately approached Azarenko and asked if she felt like a victim.
“Victim?” she answered. “Victim because someone didn’t shake hands with me? Oh no! She does not want to shake hands with Russians and Belarusians. I respect her decision!”
“Oh sport, you are peace!” Pierre de Coubertin wrote in his “Ode to Sport” back in 1912.
“You establish good, kind, friendly relations between peoples.”
I would like to agree with de Coubertin, but the reality would appear to be different. When the Wimbledon stands booed Azarenko, the noise was, of course, aimed not at her, but at the Presidents of Belarus and Russia, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin.
Svitolina's run at Wimbledon came to an end in the semi-finals, but we are immensely proud of her. The pressure and responsibility that she must have felt, especially when playing against Belarusian or Russian athletes, must surely only have been comparable with that of Ukrainian soldiers during the battle. “Oh sport, you are a battleground!” sounds closer to reality.
While I am proud of Svitolina, I feel ashamed that I was once proud of some other Ukrainian champions who have switched allegiance, betraying their country not in the sports arena, but in a more serious way.
How should sports historians evaluate the contribution to the development of Ukrainian sport by such figures as Serhiy Bubka, former pole vaulter and – until recently – president of the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine, as well as four-times Olympic swimming champion – also Hero of Ukraine – Yana Klochkova?
At the very beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Klochkova went to annexed Crimea – to her parent’s home – and deleted her Facebook and Instagram accounts. Now she communicates with her fans only on the pages of Russian social networks. Nobody has managed to get a comment from her about Russia's war against Ukraine. For her, there is no war, which means that she has chosen to side with Russia.
Bubka became a refugee in the first days of the new Russian invasion, relocating to Switzerland and Italy. Later, he resigned as chairman of the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine and passed his responsibilities to the Minister for Youth and Sports, Vadim Gutsait. However, Bubka has remained on the International Olympic Committee. He came up with the idea of giving Ukrainian passports to Russian athletes who cannot or do not want to compete on behalf of Russia. The suggestion was not supported by the Ukrainian government.
The International Olympic Committee, headed by Thomas Bach, decided at the beginning of the year to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in the 2024 Olympics. This drew protests from many countries and a final decision was postponed until the summer of 2023. However, it is already clear that Russian and Belarusian athletes will take part. True, without the Russian flag or anthem.
Both famous athletes - Bubka and Klochkova - were supporters of the pro-Russian Party of Regions and its leader, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who has lived in Moscow since he fled Ukraine after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014.
If Klochkova is slowly fading out of Ukrainian consciousness, then Bubka is remembered and even sought out. He has businesses registered both in Kyiv and Donetsk (in Donetsk they are registered under Russian law), and they attract close attention from both journalists and detectives.
Bubka’s most famous company, Mont Blanc, which until 2018 participated in tenders for the sale of fuel, food, and much more to the Ukrainian state, recently signed contracts with the Donetsk occupation administration for the supply of fuel. True, these contracts are signed not by Bubka himself, but by his brother Vasily, also a former athlete who lives in Donetsk. However, the list of the company’s founders includes the name Serhiy Bubka.
Other recent news that has succeeded in diverting Ukrainians’ attention from events at the front also has some sporting elements. Ihor Kushnir, the head of the Kyivmiskbud Construction Holding, which is 80 percent owned by the Kyiv City Council, has gone into mountaineering. He and his wife paid $150,000 for the chance to climb Everest. They reached the summit and took photos of themselves with the Ukrainian flag and that of their construction company.
All this would be understandable were it not for the fact that, in order to leave Ukraine, Kushnir presented a disability certificate to the Ukrainian border guards. Further investigations have shown that, since the start of the war, Kushnir has spent 240 days abroad.
Equally interesting is the fact that Kushnir demanded Hr. 1 billion (EUR 19 million) from the Ukrainian government to restart Kyivmiskbud in order to complete construction projects that were frozen when the war started in February 2022.
At the same time, Kushnir and his wife, Oksana, have spent a significant part of the war in a luxury villa located in a secure area near Nice, France. The villa is registered with Oksana’s Cypriot company and is estimated to be worth a similar sum to the one Kushnir asked for from the government to restart Kyivmiskbud operations – around EUR19-20 million.
On July 6, the mayor of Kyiv, world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, temporarily removed Kushnir from his duties as head of the board of the construction company and ordered a financial audit to be carried out by a well-known international firm.
Kyivmiskbud’s press-service announced that Kushnir received a disability certificate due to having cancer. The final verdict on his mountaineering and business activities will be announced after the audit.
It seems that Klitschko will now only have more worries while the rest of us can, at least, remember how Elina Svitolina sent waves of happiness around Ukraine.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.
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