Russia's war threatens Ukraine's Olympic future, not just the present. A young gymnast offers hope

Ukraine Olympics Paris 2024 War Generation
Posted at 10:14 AM, Jul 09, 2024

CHORNOMORSK, Ukraine (AP) — When Oleksandra Paskal first took to the mat as a 4-year-old, her rhythmic gymnastics coach saw nothing but potential in a sport where the Olympics is the ultimate goal. Then a Russian missile crushed her summer house in the southern Odesa region, burying her beneath the debris and severing her left leg.

Oleksandra’s coach, Inga Kovalchuk, prides herself on her ability to spot the future. But it’s increasingly clear that Russia’s war on Ukraine is demolishing the seeds of a sports culture that was a European powerhouse.

Two years after she was injured in May 2022, Oleksandra was among 12 girls diligently following the instructions of their demanding coach in the sunlit room. No one paid attention to her prosthetic leg, but although she has even more of the grit and dedication that first caught Kovalchuk’s eye, she will never be quite the same.

“Oleksandra, you do the exercise on full foot, the others — on half toes,” Kovalchuk told the group.

Now 8, the girl who once aimed to compete at the Olympics now dreams of the Paralympics. She was back training after just six months of rehab. Radiating confidence, she won her first competition a year after the attack with unflappable grace and fluidity and is inspiring a following well beyond the rhythmic gymnastics community.

“Sometimes I am even fearful: Will I manage? Not her, but me?” Kovalchuk confessed. “And in general, it’s incredibly hard for all of them right now.”

It takes a decade and a national infrastructure of training facilities, feeder schools, equipment, and coaches to nurture an Olympic champion, and a process that begins in early childhood ends up winnowing out most contenders long before they reach the Games.

More than 500 sports facilities were damaged or occupied by Moscow’s troops, depriving young athletes of a place to train, according to the Sports Ministry. Coaches joined the army or fled abroad, and some children who left early in the war haven’t returned. Those who remain find their practices are frequently interrupted by air raid alarms that can last for hours. The destruction of sports schools means some children may never even begin to discover their potential.

Even if the war stopped tomorrow, it could take Ukrainian athletics a decade to recoup the losses, Veerle De Bosscher, a sports policy professor at Vrije University in Brussels, Belgium, who researches how countries produce champions, wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

Seventy of Kovalchuk’s 110 gymnasts from before the war, including some of her best prospects, fled the country and haven’t returned. She has some new students, including internally displaced children, but her class now totals only 60.

“My primary task today is not to achieve high results in sports but to preserve the mental and physical health of our children,” Kovalchuk said.

“Judges don't care where you're from”

According to Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, more than 2 million children have fled the country. The departures have already impacted various sports, as coaches lost trainees in whom they had invested years of work.

At Kyiv’s Liko Diving School, Ukraine’s largest, 50% of the most promising children are gone, said Illia Tseliutin, head coach of Ukraine’s national diving team. Two of the 20 coaches joined the army and three fled the country. Those numbers are almost certainly higher for schools in the frontline east and south, he said.

Tseliutin understands on a personal level. He fled the Luhansk region in 2014 soon after Russian forces first attacked there, and his hometown of Rubizhne has been occupied since 2022. Many Ukrainian divers and swimmers are originally from the occupied east and south and have no home to return to, much less a functioning pool, and so they remain abroad.

“We are at war, children are leaving, and they might compete for other countries,” Tseliutin said. That creates a vicious cycle even for those who remain in Ukraine, who have fewer high-level athletes to measure themselves against and who find their own time in the pool interrupted by air raid alarms that go on for hours, he said.

Before, coaches planned the training schedule four years in advance. Now they are simply trying to ensure their sport survives the war.

“Our task is to prepare for competitions,” Tseliutin said. “Judges don’t care where you’re from, they only score your jumps.”

Mines in the water, missiles in the air

The southern city of Kherson, located on the shores of Dnipro River, was once fertile ground for Ukrainian rowing. The Ukrainian rowing team heading to Paris this year counts several crews from the region, which also boasts past Olympians as well.

But that section of the Dnipro is now the only natural barrier between Ukrainian and Russian troops in the region, with drones, artillery and missiles are flying overhead daily and mines in the water.

All 200 children and 15 coaches involved in rowing in Kherson fled the city, which is under near-constant attack, and only about 20% of the children are still rowing at all, whether in Ukraine or abroad, Ihor Harahulia, president of the non-profit Kherson Rowing Federation. The Kherson School of Higher Sportsmanship, where rowers and other competitive athletes trained, is a pile of rubble after numerous Russian attacks and flooding from the explosion of the Kakhovka dam last June.

Any child in Kherson today is unlikely to discover an untapped talent for rowing, given the danger on the water, and the lack of coaches and facilities. Harahulia is still there, but even he has abandoned the waters. He delivers humanitarian aid by car.

“There’s no way for someone to row right now, because it’s almost certainly fatal,” he said.

But there’s no point rebuilding sports infrastructure now, Acting Sports Minister Matvii Bidnyi, said “because there will be another strike and we will (lose) the invested money."

This is why people like Hennadii Zuiev, who is among the coaches who fled Ukraine, struggle to imagine a return. The 48-year-old high jump trainer left Kherson in the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion and moved from country to country across Europe with his family.

Before the war he had several young athletes. Now he’s in the Portuguese city of Monte Gordo and focused only on adults. Among those he trained are Ukrainian high jumpers Kateryna Tabashnyk and Andriy Protsensko. The latter qualified for the Paris Olympics.

Zuiev would like to return to Ukraine, but his city is under constant fire and the school where he once trained is in ruins.

“I just can’t imagine yet how, where, and what I will do,” he says. “Every day I think about it, and every day I can’t find an answer for myself.”


John Leicester contributed from Paris.


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