Ukraine Paralympic chief: 'We stay in Russia to promote peace'

Story highlights

  • Ukraine will compete in the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi
  • A 23-strong team representing Ukraine will take part in the Games
  • Ukraine Paralympic chief Valeriy Suskevich wants to promote a message of peace
  • The 2014 Paralympic Winter Games get under way on Friday

Ukraine will compete at the Sochi 2014 Winter Games in Russia in order to promote peace between the two nations, the head of its Paralympic Committee said, although only one of the country's athletes attended Friday's opening ceremony.

Relations have disintegrated following the overthrow of the Russia-friendly government in Kiev, prompting a rise in tensions in the disputed Crimea region.

Ukrainian officials and Western diplomats have accused President Vladimir Putin of sending thousands of troops to Crimea in the past week -- a claim Russia denies.

It had sparked fears Ukraine would boycott the 2014 Paralympic Games, which run from March 7-16, but the 23-strong team will now compete under its own flag.

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"We are staying in order to be remembered, for Ukraine to be remembered as the state which sent a unified team," Ukraine Paralympic Committee president Valeriy Suskevich told reporters in Sochi.

"We've taken the decision to raise the flag of independent sovereign state of Ukraine here at the Paralympic Games."

Ukraine's sole representative at the opening ceremony in the Fisht Olympic stadium was Nordic skier and flag-bearer Mykailo Tkachenko. The rest of the team stayed away in protest, Ukrainian Minister of Sports and Youth, Dmitriy Bulatov, said via Facebook.

"This is how our team expresses protest against aggressors and occupants entering our land," Bulatov said.

Suskevich urged competitors not to do anything that could further increase tensions between Russia and Ukraine, while also revealing he had spoken with Putin.

"I reiterated to Putin my request for peace during the Paralympic Games," he said. "I hope I have been heard by the president of Russia.

"Do just one thing -- don't let us start a war during the Paralympic Games. We want peace. The athletes have a right to have the Paralympic Games under peaceful conditions.

"I am praying to god so that the Paralympic Games must keep peace in Europe, and my home of Ukraine.

"I could have talked at length to the president of Russia about Crimea. I could have talked a lot about conflict, I didn't have time. I realize there is exclusivity in meeting the president of Russia.

"I reiterated for Mr. Putin, emphasizing one request, that during the Paralympic Games we would have peace."

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Should the military conflict deepen, however, Suskevich said Ukraine would withdraw from the Paralympics.

"I declare should this happen we will leave the Games," he said. "We cannot possibly stay here in this case.

"This is what we are afraid of. This is what we are opposing and we do not want to take place. I hope my message has been heard, I hope I have been heard by the president of Russia."

Ukraine's decision to remain in Sochi and participate in the Games was welcomed by International Paralympic Committee (IPC) chairman Philip Craven.

"We are delighted as we want sport to prevail and a full complement of teams to compete in what we are confident will be a fantastic Paralympic Winter Games," Craven said in a statement.

"All week the IPC has been working closely with the Ukrainian Paralympic Committee in an effort to keep them here in Sochi.

"The talking point of Sochi 2014 needs to be great sport and great athletes, not global politics.

"We want all the athletes who have trained for years to reach these Games to fully focus on events on the field as opposed to off.

"Now that a decision has been taken I hope this will be the case and the athletes and the sport will take center stage and the headlines they deserve."

Ukraine will have 21 athletes competing in the para-Nordic/biathlon events, and the other two in para-alpine skiing and snowboard disciplines.

It won 19 medals, five of them gold, at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics.

Only one athlete was present at the press conference, with 25-year-old biathlete Grygorii Vovchynski passionate about the chance to represent Ukraine in Sochi.

"You ask me if we are ready to compete? Yes, with the strongest desire," he said.

"We are ready to compete, ready to fight for Ukraine, ready to demonstrate we are a strong and free, independent people.

"We know how to love life, love sport and love fair competition."