In an Olympics like no other for Ukrainian athletes, Ukrainian athletes were forced to deal with a raging pandemic and overwhelming political concerns in addition to the world’s toughest winter sports athletes. Here’s what you should remember.
It hasn’t been easy for Ukrainian athletes at Beijing 2022. Between politics, provocations, and the pandemic, it often felt like sports was the last thing on the minds of our athletes. Still, we witnessed some outstanding athletic performances – none greater than Oleksandr Abramenko’s legend-making silver in aerials – as well as deft media management by our young athletes.
Kyiv Post reporter Lee Reaney was in Beijing and brings us Ukraine’s Top 5 Takeaways from Beijing 2022.
- Abramenko Soars to Silver
If PyeongChang 2018 made Ukrainian aerial skier Oleksandr Abramenko a star, Beijing 2022 made the athlete a legend. After becoming Ukraine’s first male Winter Olympic champion four years ago, the 33-year-old Abramenko – competing in his fifth straight Winter Olympics – soared to an unexpected silver to win Ukraine’s only medal at the second straight Winter Olympic Games. Ukraine’s flag bearer at the 2018 Closing Ceremony and 2022 Opening Ceremony thereby fulfilled the Ukrainian Olympic Committee’s goal of winning a single medal in Beijing. By adding a 2022 silver to his 2018 gold medal, Abramenko became Ukraine’s most decorated Winter Olympic athlete of all-time. His achievement touched Ukrainian NOC President Serhiy Bubka, who – literally – took off his hat to the Olympic champion.
“It is a sign of respect”, Bubka told the Kyiv Post moments later. “It is respect for his achievement – and I know how difficult it was. It’s difficult to find words now. It’s my respect for that heroism that he has shown us all”.
- Heraskevych Takes a Stand
Instead of answering questions about training, weather conditions, or their performances, Ukrainian athletes were inundated with questions about the political situation back home. Figure skater Ivan Shmuratko was the first to call out Russian media for its political questioning, but it was something that most athletes and officials in Beijing dealt with on a day-to-day basis.
The continued headlines of Russia’s military build-up around Ukraine dominated headlines here and proved a distraction for most Ukrainian athletes. That’s when skeleton racer Vladyslav Heraskevych took a stand by racing with and then displaying to TV cameras a home-made ‘No War in Ukraine’ sign. Clearly explaining what many other athletes – Ukrainian and otherwise – were feeling, Heraskevych’s brave statement will be remembered for marking what Ukraine’s athletes had to brave while here – political headlines at home trumping their achievements in China.
“It’s my position. I want peace in the world”, he told the Kyiv Post moments after displaying the sign on television. “Honestly, I am very afraid of war. As any normal person, I do not want a war. This is my position.”
Heraskevych was not sanctioned for his actions.
- Dzhima & Pidruchnyi Lead the Way
While it was Abramenko’s career-defining performance that will be remembered from Beijing 2022, plenty of other Ukrainian athletes showed impressive athletic achievements, perhaps none more so than biathletes Yuliia Dzima and Dmytro Pidruchnyi. Dzhima had four Top 10 finishes in her six events, while Pidruchnyi had four Top 15 finishes in his six. Both were instrumental in Ukraine’s relay races, where the teams finished just outside the medals – the women finished 7th and the men finished 9th. Dzhima nearly provided some late-Olympics heroics, falling just short of a medal in the 12.5 km mass start where she finished in 7th. While Ukrainians were disappointed that our biathlon teams couldn’t bring home any medals, our biathletes did provide moments to be proud of from Beijing 2022.
“Psychologically, it was difficult for me to get into the race”, Pidruchnyi told the Kyiv Post after the men’s relay. “At the shooting, I took a risk while I was shooting prone – and it worked. I tried the same thing standing, but it didn’t work out.”
- COVID Crushes Ukraine
I guess it was to be expected that the world’s first winter “COVID Games” would be dominated by news about the pandemic, but the way in which coronavirus affected Ukrainian athletes still stung. Nearly 1 in 5 Ukrainian athletes were forced to miss training or competitions because of an “adverse result” in tests. This torpedoed Ukraine’s teams in both the mixed biathlon relay and mixed aerials team events – both of which Ukraine had medal aspirations. The mental toll on the athletes was evident, eliciting animated and long-winded responses to how they were dealing with COVID measures in China and word that their teammates continued to test positive. Ukraine’s Beijing 2022 silver medalist Oleksandr Abramenko didn’t get the chance to add to his record-breaking Winter Olympic medal haul when his mixed aerials team was forced to withdraw just hours before competing.
“For me it was scary”, Abramenko told the Kyiv Post in an exclusive interview. “Each day when I came to take the COVID test – it was a terrible feeling because I know my teammates feel OK but have bad results. So, when I went for my tests, I thought ‘just good, just good, not COVID, not COVID’. It’s a crazy thing – a crazy Olympic Games.”
- Speedy Skier Sets Record
Ukraine isn’t exactly known as an alpine nation, but Zakarpattia’s Ivan Kovbasnyuk hopes to change that impression. Kovbasnyuk had a Beijing 2022 to remember by throwing down one of the greatest skiing performances in Ukrainian history. After quick races down the ‘Rock’ downhill course and the ‘Ice River’ technical course, Kovbasnyuk finished 14th overall. Only Lviv’s Mykola Skryabin has ever done better, nearly a quarter century ago at Nagano 1998, when he finished 12th.
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