To me, the Olympics have always been a place where the globe comes together- far away nations meet face-to-face, billions of people of different nationalities tune in together, and, amidst conflict, countries find common ground. They become an opportunity to look at one another and really learn about what is happening around the world, outside of our own countries, continents, or hemispheres. This story stands as an example of the way these Olympic Games can teach us about the struggles our neighbors are facing.
This story was originally published on The New York Times by correspondent Sam Borden.
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Two members of Ukraine’s Olympic team withdrew from the Sochi Games on Thursday in a show of solidarity with protesters who are locked in a violent conflict with their government in the capital city of Kiev.
Bogdana Matsotska, an Alpine skier, and her father and coach, Oleg Matsotskyy, announced on Matsotskyy’s Facebook page that they would be leaving Sochi before Matsotska had finished competing. Matsotska, 24, will not take part in the women’s slalom, which is scheduled for Friday.
Other Ukrainian athletes have left the Games to return to their homeland, though reports have indicated that most of them had completed their events. Others, like the figure skater Natalia Popova, have remained in Sochi. After finishing her figure skating short program on Wednesday night, Popova said that she had not tracked the protests on television because she did not have a TV in her room here, “but my friends and family have been telling me that it’s getting worse.”
She added: “That’s very unfortunate because you just want peace everywhere. But all I can do is just focus on my performance and, hopefully, my skating can inspire the people back in Ukraine to be more peaceful with each other.”
In explaining the decision to leave early, Matsotskyy wrote in his Facebook post that “as a protest against lawless actions made towards protesters, the lack of responsibility from the side of the president and his lackey government, we refuse further performance at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games.” It is believed that at least 25 people have died and hundreds more were injured in a confrontation in Kiev this week.
Along with his message, Matsotskyy posted a picture that appeared to be of him and Matsotska, standing in front of the Olympic rings and holding a Ukrainian flag. He wrote that he and his daughter had come to Sochi hoping that President Viktor F. Yanukovych and his government would negotiate peacefully with the opposition during the Olympics. They added that they believed the violence that erupted against protesters was a “violation of the old principle of the Games — the Olympic Truce.”
The situation in Kiev has lingered over the Ukrainians’ participation in Sochi from the beginning of the Games. The Ukrainian Olympic Committee petitioned Olympic officials for permission to give their athletes black armbands to wear during competition, as a way to honor those who were killed during the violence. That request was rejected, as Olympic rules are strict when it comes to the uniformity of equipment and apparel.
In the Olympic Village, Ukrainian athletes on Thursday added black mourning bands to the blue and yellow Ukrainian flags hanging from the balconies of the rooms where they are staying.
In a statement on Wednesday, the Ukrainian team had expressed condolences for the dead and appealed for peace. “We are thinking about our families and loved ones back home in Ukraine, and we are doing our best to honor them on the fields of play here in Sochi,” the team said. “We appeal for peace and mutual understanding to find a positive way forward for Ukraine.”
Sergie Bubka, a former pole vault champion and president of the Ukrainian Olympic Committee, issued a separate statement, in which he called for dialogue. “For the sake of the future of our kids let’s do everything possible to get back to negotiations and make a compromise,” he wrote on his blog.
Sochi’s local government did approve a request for a demonstration related to the Ukrainian protest. The approved protest zone is in the city of Khosta, on the road between the city of Sochi and the Olympic Park, roughly eight miles from the Olympic venues in the coastal cluster.
“One of the topics that has been approved is the events in Ukraine, which is the hot potato right now,” Anton Gusev, an official with Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, said Thursday.
Top Ukrainian officials have also been in Sochi as part of Lviv’s’s bid to host the 2022 Olympics. Bubka said he did not see why the current conflict should stand in the way of the bid.
“It is eight years before the Games start,” he said. “I think it will be settled. We are building our future and democracy. People have the possibility to express their views. Many issues in this moment will be solved shortly. Politicians are working very hard to make change and improve the situation in our country.”
Cover photo: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach