When Ukrainian athlete Viktoriya Tkachuk came home from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it was time to go back to a difficult reality.
The 26-year-old finished sixth in the 400-meter hurdles in Japan, beating dozens of professional athletes from all over the world. Despite her performance, Tkachuk knew she could expect little support from Ukraine, the country she represented.
Professional athletes in Ukraine are paid less than $600 per month, having some of the lowest income among countries competing at the Olympics.
With such a meager sum, they can’t afford to pay for proper healthcare in case of injuries, which tends to happen a lot due to Ukraine’s decaying sports infrastructure.
When she suffered a knee injury in the summer of 2019, Tkachuk had nowhere to turn for help. She learned that she and her coach were on their own, without any support from the state.
“We (athletes) would like to be protected in case such a thing happens that could end our career,” she told the Kyiv Post.
In this year’s Olympics, Ukraine won 19 medals and made it to the top 20 countries by the number of medals.
Ukraine promised to reward its medal-winning athletes with cash prizes totaling $1.84 million. Gold medalists will each receive $125,000. Silver medalists will get $80,000 and bronze medalists will get $55,000. These are considered big prizes by international standards.
But few get to the very top. To be able to continue professional careers and compete for medals, many athletes need the government’s support along the way.
Getting a diagnosis for Tkachuk’s injury was difficult.
A knee injury often involves going through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests that can easily cost $37 (Hr 1,000) if not more, but the salaries that Ukrainian athletes receive from the Ministry of Youth and Sports are negligible.
Regular salaries of Ukrainian athletes ranged between $450 (Hr 12,000) and $562 (Hr 15,000) per month in 2018, according to the Center for Public Monitoring and Research.
Tkachuk also works as a junior sergeant in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Because she receives a salary as a military employee, she is only able to get half of what she would have been paid by the sports’ ministry as a professional athlete.
She couldn’t disclose the amount, but the salary for her military rank is Hr 19,000 (about $700), according to online media Ukrainian Military Pages.
Her official income as a sportswoman reaches “about 120– 130 euros per month,” she said. Sometimes she earns more, depending on the bonuses. But the salary is still merely enough to cover treatment in case of an injury.
“If I get a massage 2–3 times a week, my athlete’s salary is gone,” she said.
Regardless, Tkachuk lives comfortably compared to other athletes, she said.
She receives additional income from her Nike sponsorship. The authorities of Donetsk Oblast, where Tkachuk is from, also help her out. But for those who aren’t fortunate enough to receive these types of financial support, it may be a lot more difficult, according to Tkachuk.
And coaches’ salaries are not attractive enough for athletes to think about this career when they retire.
Even though the salaries given to coaches slightly increased over the years, the difference is still hard to notice, says Oleg Chukanov, vice president of the Sports Committee of Ukraine, a union of non-Olympic sports federations.
“Low wages discourage athletes to become coaches when their professional careers are over,” he said.
Decrepit infrastructure also puts athletes in danger, Tkachuk said.
Athletes need proper facilities and equipment to train or recover from injuries.
Due to a lack of funding, Ukraine’s sport venues, built decades ago under Soviet rule, are falling apart, endangering athletes. Some venues are so old it would be easier to build new ones than to renovate, Chukanov said.
Only one stadium in the city of Lutsk in northwestern Ukraine with a population of 217,000 fulfills the criteria to host national championships.
A running stadium should have eight lanes covered with soft rubber, something even Kyiv doesn’t have. Tkachuk has to drive an hour outside the Ukrainian capital to reach a suitable stadium without risking her career because of the lanes’ poor quality.
Many competitive runners practice at Rusanivets Stadium located on the left bank of the Dnipro River in Kyiv, but Tkachuk said she can’t train there. Even after post-renovation opening in 2019, the stadium doesn’t have a 400-meter standard track and the surface is not even.
Coach Serhiy Basenko, 38, who trained two Ukrainian Olympic runners, says that Rusanivets Stadium has another downside. As it is open to the public, soccer players often practice at the same time as runners there, creating a potential for them to trip on the ball and get career-ending injuries. The athletes also need to watch out for children who often run around, he said.
Aside from poor training equipment, the country lacks modern technology to analyze athletes’ performance, Basenko said.
“Sport isn’t just about moving the body anymore, but it’s also about harnessing the power of technology to come up with a strategy for success,” he said.
Athletes need a team of specialists, including sports medicine doctors, coaches and massage therapists to guide them to success, according to Basenko.
Unfortunately, this is out of reach for most athletes in Ukraine because of the high cost of such care. It’s also hard to find professionals to work with, he said.
Regular track coaches like Basenko bear the burden of making sure that the athletes are recovering well, but coaches rarely have a medical background.
If Ukraine was able to create better training establishments and make sure that athletes are taken care of by highly-skilled specialists, “it would dramatically change the results,” he said.
The success of athletes on the track depends of their training, according to Basenko.
“It’s like planting a tree, it takes time for a tree to grow and it needs to be taken care of until it stands tall on its own.”
Ukraine ends up wasting a lot of talents that still haven’t bloomed, he said.
It’s difficult for Ukrainian athletes to outperform competitors from countries like the U.S. or Germany, where professionals get access to better pay and better equipment.
It’s unlikely a coincidence that the top three economies of the world — the U.S., China and Japan — also won the most medals at the Olympics, respectively.
Richer nations tend to win more medals at the Olympics. Top athletes are not produced overnight and a country needs significant economic resources to invest in long-term training and infrastructure.
Chukanov said that sports are severely underfunded in Ukraine, despite the country’s relative success in Tokyo.
“But there is a way out of this,” he told the Kyiv Post.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said he would develop sports infrastructure “that other teams will envy” during a meeting with Tokyo Olympic medalists and their coaches held on Aug. 17.
Zelensky said he envisioned Ukraine hosting the Olympics one day, but making such a dream come true would cost the country billions of dollars.
In the meantime, Tkachuk still needs to drive at least an hour to pursue her dream of a gold medal.
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