by Lisa Martin
Ukrainian Winter Paralympians wept and pumped their fists in the air in defiance against Russia’s invasion of their homeland during a moment’s silence at the Athletes’ Village on Thursday.
On day six of the Beijing Winter Paralympics the team held a solemn ceremony to call for peace and honour their fallen countrymen and women, during a break from training commitments as well as cross-country skiing and biathlon races.
The United Nations estimates about 2.2 million Ukrainian refugees have fled the country, calling it Europe’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II.
In an act of solidarity, a 30-strong contingent of athletes and team staff raised a banner reading “peace for all” as they gathered in front of rows of flags of the 46 nations and territories competing at the Games in the Chinese capital.
Female athletes wore wreaths of sunflowers and blue and yellow ribbons — Ukraine’s colours — in their hair.
With the gold, silver and bronze medals he won this week strung around his neck, Grygorii Vovchynskyi, 33, had tears welling up in his eyes as he made an impassioned call for peace.
“I love Ukraine,” the biathlete and cross-country skier said.
He condemned Russia’s air strike on a children’s and maternity hospital in the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol which killed at least three people, including a young girl.
More than 1,200 civilians have died in that city alone, according to the mayor.
“They are bombing our children and women, I can’t believe it,” Vovchynskyi said, his voice wavering.
“It must be stopped now.”
Head coach Andriy Nesterenko, who hails from the heavily bombed city of Kharkiv, along with seven other team members, said it will be impossible for them to go home.
Much of the city has been destroyed, including schools and hospitals, he said.
“I think the Russian soldiers and army are not human — they are animals,” Nesterenko said.
“We need to stop the war.”
Ukraine’s athletes in Beijing have excelled even while war ravages their homeland.
Liudmyla Liashenko has won silver and bronze medals in biathlon but pulled out of her cross-country ski race after learning her home in Kharkiv was destroyed.
Anastasiia Laletina, 19, did not take part in her biathlon race after learning her father had been taken prisoner by Russian soldiers.
Competitors from Russia and key ally Belarus have been barred the Games over Moscow’s military assault.
Ukraine Paralympic Committee president Valeriy Sushkevych, who characterised the team’s arrival in Beijing as a miracle last week, urged the world not to turn its back on the country.
“If you are civilised, you must stop the war,” he said.
The Ukraine team has shown immense resilience with an impressive six gold medals and 19 podium finishes, all in cross-country skiing and biathlon events.
They are third in the overall medals table, behind China and Canada.
International Paralympic Committee president Andrew Parsons has witnessed the team in action and has presented medals to some of the athletes.
“Their journey here is one of the most extraordinary stories ever in sport,” he told AFP on Thursday.
“The fact they are competing here, knowing what is going on in their nation, and are still focused on competition — it’s incredible.”
He said there were always examples of resilience at any Paralympic Games — but this was next level.
“This is beyond what I thought was possible,” he said.
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