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War in Ukraine

Russian Athletes Are Doing Well, While Ukrainians Are Dying – Interview With a Ukrainian Olympian

How Ukrainian athletes are preparing for the competition despite the hardships of war, and how to ban Russians, most of whom still support the war, from the Olympics.

In an exclusive interview with Kyiv Post, gymnast Oleg Vernyayev, who won gold and silver at the 2016 Olympic Games, reported that Russian athletes are actively helping the Russian army in the war with Ukraine. He discussed how to ban Russia from participating in the Olympics and described the problems Ukrainian athletes face in preparing for competitions during wartime.

 Have you had any encounters with Russian athletes since the full-scale invasion? How did they behave?

On Feb. 22 last year, my colleagues left for the World Cup competition, and when the full-scale invasion started, they arrived in Qatar. We didn’t know whether to compete or not, because the war had started. There was a situation when a young athlete from Russia took third place on the uneven bars. The Ukrainian athlete came in first, and the Russian took third. Due to the full-scale invasion, the Russians were forbidden to come to the award ceremony with their national coat of arms. So instead, he taped the form of a Z (the symbol of the Russian army during the invasion of Ukraine).

So they don’t regret full-scale war Russia started, they don’t sympathize with Ukraine?

No, they think this is normal.

Do they support Putin directly?

They say, “You have your truth, and I have mine.” That’s their argument.

 Is it true that the majority of Russian athletes hold military positions?

Almost all Russian national teams do. Some are in the military, some are in the National Guard, and all have ranks.

Why did this come about?

I think it’s a system that dates back to the Soviet Union and is the same here. When all athletes get into the national team, they join the CSK or Dynamo clubs, receive military ranks, and are enrolled in sports army units.

Do you know of any cases where Russian athletes went to the front to fight, or visited the occupied territories?

Yes, there are many. I know a Russian gymnast who went to Crimea to open an event there and met children from Donetsk, which is now the so-called DPR. They have no idea that this is abnormal. “This is my job. I was told to do it,” is how they justify their actions.

Do they help the Russian army, for example, by fundraising?

I even posted a video on my Instagram of Russian soldiers with a drone thanking Russian athletes Nikita Nagorny (Olympic champion), Denis, Arthur, and David. The last three don’t give their last names, but judging from the first names, this is the Russian national team in Tokyo, where they became Olympic champions.

It’s inappropriate for them to post videos of how they support the Russian military, raise funds, and then say that they don’t support the war.

Do you know any of our athletes who went to fight at the front?

A lot of them, we have more than 3,000 athletes who have gone to the front – some are fighting, some are doing volunteer work. A lot of top athletes have started to engage in humanitarian aid because they have access to foreign countries. If they can raise funds not only in Ukraine but also abroad, it’s more effective. I know that more than 240 athletes have been killed, and more than 300 sports facilities have been destroyed. How can somebody say that sports are not politics after that?

Children are leaving Ukraine, and coaches are leaving us, athletes are going abroad, Russians are destroying our sports infrastructure – we are losing everything we have. In Russia, they train without any problems and compete in championships. It’s impossible to train in our country, but Russians do well. Then they say at the championships that everyone should be on the same level.

Were there any friends among those athletes who died?

Not personally, but I remember that a girl died when she was 12 years old. She was engaged in rhythmic gymnastics, not on the national team but as a candidate. In three or four years, she could have joined the Ukrainian national team and competed at the Olympic Games, but she died because of the shelling. It happened in Mariupol.

The most recent news I saw: track and field athletes posted that Russian shelling killed another athlete. We have a lot of people killed.

The Olympic Committee can admit Russian athletes as “neutral” to take part in the Olympic Games? How do you feel about this?

For me, Russians simply don’t exist. If we meet on the platform, I will not shake hands and say hello. For me, these people don’t exist. I do not want to see them anyone. 

Do you think this potential decision of the Olympic Committee is fair? A lot of parallels are drawn with Nazi Germany when they held the Olympic Games. Aren’t we repeating history?

The Olympic Committee talked about three points for the admission of Russian athletes: first, a neutral flag; second, those who did not support the war; and third, and the purity of doping control. If they were to strictly monitor whoever appeared in an interview or event supporting the war and then disqualify then, then maybe that would work. But all those Russians support the war.

Everyone is shouting, “Hurrah for Putin,” there are almost no normal athletes who do not support the war, only a few. That’s why I think that they have no place in these games. I don’t know how Ukrainians and Russians can stand on the same podium in the same hall. If I were on the podium and knew that a Russian had won, I would simply leave the podium before the Russian anthem. Morally, it would be difficult for any Ukrainian athlete, but some remain silent.

Are you currently training and preparing for the competition here in Ukraine?

I’m not training at the moment, but our team, except for one or two athletes, are training in Ukraine.

Does the war affect the training process?

The first time when the power went out – do you know what gymnastics is? Have you ever seen it?

Yes, I have.

Let’s say you’re in the middle of a somersault and you don’t know when the lights will go out. We’ve had cases where guys go flying, and the lights go out.

Isn’t that dangerous?

Yes, you may not get up afterward. Automatically, your body continues to do the somersault in the dark, but if you can’t coordinate your landing safely, it could be very dangerous.

Of course, later, they installed generators, and we trained, but then the shelling started. You’re training, and it’s hitting, so you don’t know what to do – run to the basement or continue training. Then traveling became more difficult. It used to be 2-3 hours from the airport, and you were already at the place, now it’s 2-3 days on the road.

All finances go primarily to the military, and athletes don’t have enough money for competitions, travel, or a pharmacy. I’m not complaining, but these facts have an effect and cause discomfort. Of course, the military needs help much more now.

Compared with Russia, they’re doing well, while we’re having a hard time. How can Russians say that everyone should be on the same level?

There must be a moral aspect here, right?

You’re going to a competition, have a performance day, and read that Russian troops are shelling Ukraine. First you think about your friends and parents’ safety. What competition can there be, if all your thoughts are about that?

Are Russians competing alongside Ukrainians now?

No. Many sports have suspended them and don’t allow Russians to participate. If this lasts for a year, it would be enough to ban Russians, because they have to qualify to get to the Olympic Games. In gymnastics there are the European Championships, the Asian Games, the entire American tournament, and the African tournament. Through these tournaments, athletes are selected for the World Championships. If an athlete is not selected for the World Championships, then there is no selection for the Olympic Games. So if Russians are prevented from attending this World Championship, then their participation in the Olympic Games is over.

In Asia, Russian athletes were allowed to participate as “neutrals.”

Yes, but the World Championships will be held in Belgium. It would be great if Russians were denied Schengen visas. In this case, the Olympic Committee can do whatever it wants, but if European countries unite, the Russians will be unable to come.

Do you think it’s possible to ban Russian athletes attending the Olympics?

I hope so, because recently the mayor of Paris, a cool woman, expressed her position that she is against Russians in her city at the Olympic Games in Paris. If the mayor of Paris says so, it’s serious.

In general, many countries have supported banning Russia from the Olympics.

So more than 30 countries will boycott the Olympics if Russia is present. The most important country in resolving this issue is France. It would be a drastic move if they also decided to boycott Russia. To invest billions in organizing the Olympics, including the infrastructure and so on, and then not participate? People are already buying tickets to the Olympics that cost $100 -$700 or more, and to come when your country’s athletes aren’t participating. I think, this could even cause protests.

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