‘Our motivation is so high’: Ukrainians target Olympic glory despite war and row over ‘neutral’ Russians

Russia’s invasion has killed hundreds of athletes and trainers and destroyed swathes of sports infrastructure, Kyiv says

Ukrainian kayaker Ivan Semykin (right, at rear of kayak) with his crew, who are preparing to compete at the Paris Olympics this summer. Photograph: Courtesy of Ivan Semykin

Wrestler Zhan Beleniuk has overcome adversity all his life: he lost his father in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, became Ukraine’s first black member of parliament in 2019, and then juggled politics and sport to win his country’s only gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

He will defend his title in Paris next month with teammates who have been uprooted by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which Kyiv says has killed about 470 athletes and coaches and destroyed or damaged more than 500 sports facilities, including 15 Olympic training bases.

Many Ukrainian athletes have been forced to prepare for the Games far from home, in unfamiliar surroundings, while relatives and friends remain in danger from daily Russian missile and drone strikes; when they finally reach Paris, Beleniuk and others could even find themselves facing Russian rivals who have been allowed to compete as “neutrals”.

“First of all, it’s a big problem for us mentally. A lot of Ukrainian athletes have relatives in occupied territory, and we all know that Russia can hit a building in Kyiv any time. There are missiles above our cities every day,” Beleniuk says during a break from training in Croatia.


“It’s difficult, but we continue on our way and we try to train. Some athletes [in Ukraine] even train without light, because it’s a difficult situation with electricity there now,” he adds, alluding to recent Russian bombing of his country’s power grid. “So this situation, for sure, doesn’t make it easier for our athletes to prepare.”

Zhan Beleniuk, Ukrainian Greco-Roman wrestler and the first black man to be elected to his country's parliament. He won a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics and will defend his title in Paris this summer. Photograph: Courtesy of Zhan Beleniuk

After Russia, with collaboration from ally Belarus, launched an all-out attack on Ukraine in February 2022, the International Olympic Committee banned all athletes from both countries from competition. The following year, however, the IOC said individual Russians and Belarusians could take part in Paris as “neutrals” if they passed a vetting process on whether they had publicly expressed support for the war.

The governing bodies of some sports maintained a full ban – most notably World Athletics, which oversees track and field events, and soccer administrators Fifa and Uefa – while others approved the participation of those who were cleared by the vetting panels.

Russian athletes cannot say anything against the position of their government, because they have no democracy

—  Zhan Beleniuk, Ukrainian wrestler

“We don’t understand the position of the IOC, because… the situation has not changed. The Russians are still trying to grab our territory, occupy us and kill our civilians. They have destroyed a lot of sport infrastructure and killed more than 400 Ukrainian athletes,” says Beleniuk, who was born in Ukraine, his mother’s homeland.

The world body that governs his sport of Greco-Roman wrestling has allowed eligible Russians and Belarusians to compete in Paris, but it is not clear whether they will, due to strong political criticism in Moscow of the IOC’s demands on “neutral” status.

In any case, Beleniuk says, it is wrong to believe athletes can remain politically neutral in Russia, where the Kremlin now uses every aspect of public life to promote the war and demonise Ukraine and the West, and where President Vladimir Putin and his officials often use meetings and high-profile events with sports stars for propaganda purposes.

“We understand that this is ‘fake neutral’,” Beleniuk says. “Russian athletes cannot say anything against the position of their government, because they have no democracy.”

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Kayaker Ivan Semykin was in Turkey when Russia launched its full invasion of Ukraine. He recalls how one teammate, from a town in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region that was quickly occupied, has been unable to return home since that trip; the partner and child of another teammate fled eastern Ukraine after an intercepted missile landed near their house, shattering its windows.

Ukrainian kayaker Ivan Semykin (second from right) with his crew. They will compete at the Paris Olympics this summer. Photograph: Sophie Garcia/AP, courtesy of Ivan Semykin

“Without the war we would have been able to spend much more time at home in Ukraine, just like we did before,” Semykin says from a training camp in Poland.

“Now we can only really train [at home] in the Kyiv region and in western Ukraine. Before we’d train in Poltava and Dnipro [in eastern Ukraine], but that’s impossible now… Throughout my career I’ve spent most of my time in Dnipro and training conditions are great there – but now it’s targeted by drones and missiles every day.”

The International Canoe Federation, which governs kayaking, allowed Russians and Belarusians to compete in events last year, just days after a missile strike on the Ukrainian city of Uman killed at least 23 people and forced the cancellation of a national canoeing event there; Liudmyla Luzan, a two-time Olympic medallist, said the missile hit an apartment block next door to the hotel where she and her teammates were staying.

Liudmyla Luzan of Ukraine competes in the Women's Canoe Single 500m Final during the Canoe Sprint competition at European Championships Munich 2022 at Munich Olympic Regatta Centre, on August 19th, 2022, in Munich, Germany. Photograph: Adam Pretty/Getty

“I don’t think it’s a fair decision,” Semykin says of the IOC ruling on neutral athletes, under which Russian and Belarusian anthems and flags will not feature at the Games.

“I’ve been in this sport for a long time, I know what these people are like,” he says of his rivals from the two autocratic states. “They don’t represent a neutral position.”

Semykin notes that many Russian athletes belong to sports clubs which, since Soviet days, have had close ties to the military and security services; some have military ranks and receive salaries from the defence ministry, while others have publicly promoted and raised funds for Putin’s invasion force.

The IOC said this month it had cleared an initial 14 Russians and 11 Belarusians to compete in Paris as neutrals, but others were barred by a vetting panel with access to “new information from various sources, in particular official lists of athletes affiliated with sports clubs of the military and the security forces”.

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This summer’s Olympics coincide with probably the most fraught period in relations between Russia and the West since the cold war, and Moscow is seething over French president Emmanuel Macron’s support for Ukraine and refusal to rule out sending troops to the country.

Macron has said there is “no doubt whatsoever” that Russia will try to undermine the Games, and Microsoft’s threat analysis centre warned this month that “Russia-affiliated actors [are] pursuing a range of malign influence campaigns against France... Macron, the International Olympic Committee, and the Paris Games.

“These ongoing Russian influence operations have two central objectives: to denigrate the reputation of the IOC on the world stage, and to create the expectation of violence breaking out in Paris during the… Games,” Microsoft said of the alleged online campaign.

“The most worrisome disinformation advanced by pro-Russian actors has sought to impersonate militant organisations and fabricate threats to the Games amidst the Israel-Hamas conflict.”

Moscow denies doing anything to threaten or sully the Olympics, but does not hide its fury over the situation: when the IOC announced that “neutral” competitors from Russia and Belarus would be barred from the opening ceremony, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused it of “racism and neo-Nazism”.

Ukraine, meanwhile, has warned its athletes to avoid any confrontations or possible provocations involving Russians and Belarusians in Paris.

“We all know that we’re ambassadors for Ukraine, and we’re trying to focus the world’s attention on our country to show that we’re still carrying on, and we need support from everyone who hopes and prays for a victory for democracy,” Beleniuk says.

“It’s not easy to prepare in this situation. But our motivation is so high, because we don’t just want to win as athletes, but to do something good for our country and for all our soldiers who are fighting the enemy. This is the most important thing.”

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