When the 29 Ukrainian athletes compete at the World Athletics Championships they can for a brief moment forget about the war, 2008 Olympic heptathlon champion Nataliia Dobrynska has told AFP.

In normal times the athletes and Dobrynska, who is now the vice-president of the Ukrainian athletics federation, and head coach Oleksii Serdiuchenko would have awoken in Budapest on Thursday and celebrated their nation's Day of Independence.

However, the day that is meant to mark Ukraine's liberation from the Soviet Union in 1991 will for a second year be overshadowed by the presence of Russian troops on their territory.

"All people think about at this competition is the war," she said at the championships.

"But for one minute, or however long it lasts, when the athletes compete in their event they forget about everything and try to achieve something special for the Ukrainian people."


The team were able to prepare for the championships in Slovakia.

However, Dobrynska said for those athletes who had trained in Ukraine since the invasion in February 2022 it had been a nightmarish experience.

"For the athletes these have been very hard times," she said.

"For those training in Ukraine like (400m hurdler) Anna Ryzhkova the sirens go off and she needs to go to the shelter.

"She comes back to training and it sometimes lasts for four to five hours," Dobrynska said.

Sprinter Tetyana Melnik "told me when she goes to training she wants to sleep as all night there are sirens. 

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"The sirens wake her up and she has to go somewhere for safety.

"She comes to training and she tells her coach 'I want to train but I cannot'."

Serdiuchenko says while it may appear strange for athletes to have remained in a country at war -- and despite the turmoil, Ukraine still managed to hold national trials -- it is a huge emotional wrench to leave.

"Mentally it is very hard," he told AFP. "Many athletes and coaches decided to stay in Ukraine and prepare there because it is very hard to be away from families, friends, your house.


"They face so many difficulties during preparations, competitions and ordinary life.

"However, everybody in Ukraine is fighting as he or she can."

Melnik did her part by making varenyky, or Ukrainian dumplings, for soldiers. She made so many she "could not feel her hands" afterwards, Dobrynska said.

- 'My small mistake' -

However, many others have paid the ultimate price.

"War, if it does not touch you, OK yes you are very sad because it is a war," she said.

"However, if you know people who died in this or lost a son and daughter, that is the very, very worst situation.

"We know many many people who died in this war, 340 athletes and coaches."

Ex-long jumper Serdiuchenko lost his former training partner Dmytro Pidopryhora, who joined up and was killed near Bakhmut.

Serdiuchenko has remained in Ukraine, and has "very long days", as he drily put it.

Dobrynska meanwhile left "as I have three small kids and I need to take care of them".

Both believe that Ukrainian athletes would rally round their government if it decides to boycott the Paris Olympics next year if Russians and Belarusians are allowed to compete.


"If they decide we should boycott everyone will do their duty to be as one and stand together against the aggressors and politicians who decide Russians can compete in the Olympics," said Serdiuchenko.


Dobrynska said she was delighted with the "strong position" taken by World Athletics and its president Sebastian Coe, who have barred Russian and Belarusian athletes due to the invasion.

She has no such praise for International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, who is as yet refusing to bar Russians from the Games in Paris.

"We do not support Thomas Bach over this question," she said.

"We want him to help end this war and he can play a part by not allowing them to compete."

Dobrynska, who was elected to the World Athletics Council last week, has certainly had her eyes opened since she stood as a parliamentary candidate for the pro-Russia Party of Regions in the 2012 elections. 

"It was very early on, I did not have much experience," she said, flashing a smile.

"It was my small mistake, but a good experience for what has happened now. I understand things more."

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