When Russia invaded last February, Ukraine's Olympic artistic swimmers Maryna and Vladyslava Aleksiiva received a barrage of messages from Russian athletes, reassuring them Moscow's forces were actually coming to their aid.

But as Russian missiles rained down on their home city of Kharkiv, the 21-year-old twins fled, upending their training regimes and piling the stress of war on the swimmers who are hoping to win gold at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

The invasion has pushed the sisters to join a chorus of Ukrainian athletes vowing to boycott Paris in 2024 if the International Olympic Committee (IOC) allows Russian athletes -- including those who sent them "crazy" messages in the first days of the war -- to compete.

"Maybe it's better to not allow a terrorist country that killed our sportsmen (to participate)," Maryna Aleksiiva told AFP after a six-hour training session in their new training pool in Kyiv.


"(The IOC) must show that the Olympic Games are about peace. They must show this to the whole world," she added, as divers vaulted from boards behind her.

The standoff between Kyiv and the IOC points to the widening fallout of the conflict and how sports bodies are facing pressure to appease both Moscow and Kyiv or find a fine line of neutrality.

Ukrainian Olympic artistic swimmers Maryna and Vladyslava Aleksiiva form Kharkiv take part during a training in Kyiv on April 6, 2023. Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP

Block or boycott -

Russia and its ally Belarus have been sidelined from most Olympic sports since Moscow invaded Ukraine but the IOC last week recommended they be allowed to compete as neutral athletes.

In response, Ukraine has slammed the IOC as a "promoter of war" and won the backing from Germany, Poland and other allies in its call to bar Russia and Belarus.

Kyiv says Russian forces have damaged at least 343 sporting facilities, including the pool in Kharkiv where the Aleksiiva sisters trained before the war.


But Moscow has condemned what it says is "discrimination on the basis of nationality" and says all athletes must be allowed to compete.

As well as throwing uncertainty over their careers, the daily grind of war has badly impacted the rigorous training cycles of Ukrainian athletes.

"When there is an air raid siren, men in swimming trunks and women in swimsuits run to the bomb shelter and wait until the siren ends," said 26-year-old Ukrainian diver Stanislav Oliferchik. 

He, like the Aleksiiva sisters, has vowed to boycott any competition where Russians or Belarusians are allowed to compete.

"It would have been much better without all this but we work with what we have," he added.

Russians, he added, "train calmly in calm conditions and are surrounded by calm."

Oliferchik was in Kyiv when the war began, he said, and was woken up on February 24 to the sounds of explosions.

And he recounted that he only managed once to train in a new and "beautiful" pool in his hometown of Mariupol before the port city in east Ukraine was brutally besieged and captured by Russia.

Ukrainian diver Stanislav Oliferchik form Mariupol trains in a swimming pool in Kyiv on April 6, 2023. Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP


'They support this war' -

He also said he had minimal contact now with the Russian athletes he used to compete alongside and believes should be barred.

"They are silent. And the silence -- I think -- is an indicator that they support this war," he said. 

Oliferchik says the IOC's allowing them to compete is unacceptable even as neutrals.

"Everyone knows what country they will represent if they are allowed under a neutral flag," he told AFP.

"If they are still allowed, our team will boycott," he added.

The prospect of staying away from the 2024 Games has not interrupted the Aleksiiva sisters' rigorous preparations -- they spend at least six hours a day in the pool, six days a week.

AFP journalists this week saw them practising an acrobatic routine to swelling orchestral music as the women's legs twisted and pivoted in unison above the water.

"We have one goal," said Vladyslava, referring to success at the upcoming World Cup in France next month, and then the Games in Paris.

"We must do everything we can, and not think if Russians are allowed or not."

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