The Beijing Games, a political platform for Ukrainian Paralympians

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Against the backdrop of war, Ukrainian para-athletes won a bumper crop of gold medals at the Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing. They also used the event to call for peace as Russia invaded their country. NHK World’s Takahashi Naoya explores the relationship between sports and politics.

Exceptional performance

The winning Ukrainian team with their medals for the Para Cross-County Open Relay, March 13.

Ukrainian para-athletes won 29 medals in Beijing, including 11 gold medals. The country placed second in the world medal rankings and the overall performance was the country’s best performance at the Paralympic Winter Games.

But the team almost didn’t make it. Some members were fleeing Russian bombs as they embarked on a journey that lasted several days. Ukrainian Paralympic leader Valerii Sushkevych described it as “a miracle” that the 20 competitors, accompanied by officials, managed to make it to Beijing just before the opening ceremony on March 4.

During the competition, team members worried about the safety of their families back home. One athlete’s apartment was bombed and another’s father was held captive by the Russian military.

Grygorii Vovchynskyi dedicated his gold medal to the Ukrainian people
Grygorii Vovchynskyi said he wanted to share his team’s success with the people of Ukraine.

Ukraine team captain Grygorii Vovchynskyi dedicated his biathlon gold medal to the people of his country. “I ran because I want life in Ukraine to evolve into the future,” he said. “Please stop the war, it’s very important for our children.”

Many others had similar messages that they were able to share with the world.

Russia breaks Olympic truce

Russian invasion in 2022
Russian tanks on the outskirts of the besieged port city of Mariupol on March 20.

A few days before the Paralympic Games, Russia attacked Ukraine. In response, the International Paralympic Committee banned athletes from Russia and its ally Belarus from competing in Beijing.

The main reason was that Russia had broken the so-called Olympic truce, something that stems from a tradition established in ancient Greece. It was designed to ensure the suspension of all hostilities to allow the safe passage and participation of athletes and spectators involved in the Olympic Games.

The modern Olympic Truce was adopted by the United Nations in 1993, and again as recently as December last year. It was co-sponsored by 173 UN member states, including Russia. Despite Moscow’s support for the resolution, it is the third time it has launched military action during an Olympic period since 2008.

There are no specific sanctions for breaking the truce. But even if it can’t stop wars, it can have an influence, says J. Simon Rofe, reader in diplomatic and international studies at the University of London. “It provides a level of moral condemnation that we see in a global society. And those forces are at work in the conflict in Ukraine,” he explains.

J. Simon Rofe
J. Simon Rofe stressed the importance of reaching consensus on the Olympic Truce.

“Absolutely politicized”

The Russian team had already arrived in Beijing when the ban was announced. A coach spoke out as they prepared to leave. “We have sincerely worked on sport, but it is no longer possible to talk about sport without politics,” he said. The Russian Paralympic Committee issued a statement describing the decision as “absolutely politicized”.

According to Rofe, the separation of sport and politics is a “myth”. He says sport reflects and is influenced by politics, which was exemplified in Beijing. During the Paralympic Games, anti-war political messages calling for peace from athletes, coaches and officials were at the forefront.

During the opening ceremony, International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons raised both fists and shouted “peace” in one of the Games’ memorable moments.

Parsons screams
IPC President Andrew Parsons used the March 4 opening ceremony to assert that the 21st century is an era of dialogue and diplomacy, not war and hatred.

Making the Most of the Spotlights

In addition to calling for peace and encouraging support for Ukraine in media interviews, Ukrainian athletes and officials have also displayed anti-war flags and posted videos on social media. The Games served as a platform for their political messages as well as a showcase for their athletic prowess.

Anti-war demonstration by the Ukrainian team at the Athletes' Village
Team Ukraine raised a poignant banner at the Athletes’ Village on March 10.

Ukrainian team leader Sushkevych said many of the athletes’ inspiring performances were driven by what was happening at home. “We know how much our participation means to the Ukrainian people. We are happy to fight for them,” he said in a media interview.

Rofe says sport gives people “the opportunity to share an emotional connection that transcends language and culture.”

“During the toughest times, your performances shone,” IPC’s Parsons told all the athletes at the closing ceremony. He called them “champions of peace” and noted a spirit of unity that nurtured hope.

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