Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak, who has been widely criticized outside Russia for wearing a pro-war symbol on a podium next to a Ukrainian athlete, says he would “do exactly the same” if given another chance, according to Russian state media.
The 20-year-old was condemned by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) for his “shocking behavior” at a gymnastics World Cup event in Doha, Qatar, last weekend.
Kuliak wore a ‘Z’ symbol taped to his leotard while standing next toUkrainian gymnast Illia Kovtun on the podium – Kovtun won gold and Kuliak picked up bronze in the parallel bars on Saturday.
The ‘Z’ insignia has been displayed on tanks and vehicles used by the Russian military in its Ukraine operations and has since become a symbol of support for the invasion of Ukraine.
Propaganda videos on social media appear to show supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin wearing clothing featuring the ‘Z’ symbol, waving Russian flags and chanting pro-Russia slogans.
“If there was a second chance and I would again have to choose whether to go out with the letter ‘Z’ on my chest or not, I would do exactly the same,” Kuliakis quoted as saying in Russia-controlled media outlet Russia Today.
“I saw it with our military and looked at what this symbol means. It turned out [it means], ‘for victory’ and ‘for peace.’
“I didn’t wish anything bad on anyone, I just showed my position. As an athlete, I will always fight for victory and stand for peace.”
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Having received expressions of support from the head of his sport’s governing body in Russia, the Artistic Gymnastics Federation of Russia (FSGR), Vasily Titov, Kuliak says he was annoyed by the Ukrainian athletes when they displayed their national flag at the event in Doha.
Per FIG regulations at the time, Russian gymnasts at the event were only allowed to compete as neutral athletes and could not display any national symbols.
The FIG confirmed in a statement it would ask the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation (GEF) to open disciplinary proceedings against Kuliak. The GEF told CNN that it couldn’t comment on pending or potential cases as a matter of procedure.
Since Monday, Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials, including judges, are not allowed to take part in official FIG-sanctioned competitions following advice from the International Olympic Committee.
It comes as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi estimates that at least two million refugees have fled Ukraine since February 24, as fighting continues across the country.