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‘Like a poison for the body’: Amid war and grief, Ukrainian athletes strive for a spot on the Olympic team


By George Ramsay, Amanda Davies and Madalena Araújo, CNN

Lviv, Ukraine (CNN) — Kateryna Tabashnyk couldn’t hold back her tears – not necessarily because her attempt to qualify for her first Olympics had fallen short, but because she was now reflecting on all the grief and pain of the past two-and-a-half years.

The 30-year-old high jumper cleared 1.89 meters at the Ukrainian Athletics Championships on Sunday, not enough to qualify for this year’s Olympic Games in Paris. But the fact that she had even come so close was a testament to her remarkable willpower and perseverance.

Tabashnyk’s mother was killed in a Russian airstrike on Kharkiv two years ago. She had stayed in the eastern city to help her young nephew, who was seriously injured in an earlier attack by Russian forces.

Tabashnyk decided to return to competition a month later, viewing sport as a means to honor her mother’s life even in the depths of grief.

“Of course, it affects people and, of course, me – the loss of my home, the loss of my dear mother, the loss of friends,” she told CNN. “All this takes strength, takes energy. It’s like a poison for the body.”

“We have to prepare to compete and show results against this background. Of course, it’s very hard, it’s very difficult, but to be honest, I don’t know where I’ve been getting this energy, this strength for the last two years. It’s something incredible, even for me.”

Ukraine will send a team of more than 100 athletes to Paris, and – though that’s fewer than the country had in Tokyo three years ago – their participation will likely feel more significant. The Ukrainian athletes competing at the games have endured a myriad of challenges since Russia’s invasion, including facilities being destroyed, friends and relatives being killed and uncertainty about what the future might hold.

According to Ukraine’s Sports Ministry, about 3,000 athletes – from Olympic and non-Olympic sports – have served for the country’s military, either voluntarily or by being drafted, and 479 have been killed while serving or in civilian life. More than 500 sports facilities have been destroyed, including 15 Olympic training bases.

Tabashnyk won bronze at the European Indoor Championships earlier this year – her first medal at a major event – and was hoping to be part of Ukraine’s first Olympic team since Russia launched its full-scale invasion with the support of Belarus in February 2022.

She had been confident of making the team before a recent injury hampered her preparation for the national championships in Lviv.

“You can’t imagine how many times I wanted to give it all up, give up on sports, on jumping,” Tabashnyk said. “But every time I pull myself together and say, ‘No, now I have to fight like never before.’ And so it goes every time, no matter what obstacle stands in my way.”

She is far from the only Ukrainian athlete whose life has been scarred by Russia’s invasion of their country. Many athletes have moved abroad in order to continue their careers and train for this year’s Games.

That includes 400-meter hurdler Viktoriia Tkachuk, who has become accustomed to undertaking the 46-hour trip from Ukraine to her training camp in South Africa.

Tkachuk’s brother was called up to the frontline in May last year, and since then, her whole family has been fraught with fear about his safety.

“We were all stressed out because we were thinking, ‘Oh, no, he’s not ready yet, he cannot go there,’” the 29-year-old told CNN. “But we were doing our best to support him, because if he’s worrying, then he will feel our worries and it will not help him.”

Tkachuk saw her brother in February when he had a break from military service, and the pair are in regular contact while they go about their separate lives.

“He’s texted me a message: ‘You will win there, and I will win here,’” she said. “Something like this. … He has in his pocket – close to his heart – small pictures with us together, our family, and he said this picture is always with him. It’s nice to know this.”

Having already qualified for the Olympics, a minor injury prevented Tkachuk from competing in Lviv, where CNN spoke to several athletes looking to secure a spot on the team.

Despite Russia’s invasion casting a long shadow over Ukraine’s participation at these Olympics, there was a vibrant atmosphere at the event, and most athletes were excited by the chance to compete for an Olympic berth.

“Now, with a big team under our flag, we take part in a big Olympic movement, we take part in the biggest contest, and the entire world is looking at us,” Matviy Bidnyi, Ukraine’s acting sports minister, told CNN.

“All of the world awaits what we will do in the Olympic Games, what we can show in the Olympic Games – that our country, which is in a condition of war now, is in a good shape.”

“This is a very important mission,” he added, “and all our athletes understand their responsibility in it.”

Whether Russian and Belarusian athletes should be permitted to compete at this year’s Olympics, which begin on July 26, has been the topic of intense debate, especially for Ukrainian athletes and officials.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said that Russian and Belarusians can compete as Individual Neutral Athletes (AINs) in Paris, provided that they meet certain eligibility requirements.

This means that teams of Russian and Belarusian athletes will not be considered, while athletes who actively support the war against Ukraine will also be ineligible. No reference to either country will be made at the Games through the athletes’ participation, such as flags, anthems or national colors.

The IOC ruled that it would be unfair to punish athletes based on their passports alone, but many people in Ukraine were hoping for a more stringent stance.

“We think that this position is strong enough,” said Bidnyi, “but we think it would be better if they were banned totally.”

There will be no Russians or Belarusians taking part in track and field events in Paris as governing body World Athletics has banned athletes from these two countries from competing at an elite level – the only Olympic sports federation to have done so.

This means that athletes like Tkachuk will avoid the potentially challenging situation of lining up against competitors whose nations are at war with her country, irrespective of how they are presented at the Games.

“This is really nice to know, for my brother also, that I’m not going to competitions to run with Russians, or to speak with Russians, or to deal with something that I don’t need,” she said.

Her teammate, fellow 400m hurdler Anna Ryzhykova, agrees.

“We’re not friends, we’re not competitors,” Ryzhykova told CNN about facing Russian and Belarusian athletes. “They don’t have a right to be at the Olympics … because every one [of them] is guilty in some way.”

Like Tkachuk, Ryzhykova has had to spend time away from Ukraine while she trains and competes, basing herself in the Italian city of Brescia during the summer months. But being away from her family home in Dnipro isn’t always easy.

“Home is my safe place where I can recharge, relax, where I feel good, where I can really rest between competitions or in my training life,” says the 34-year-old, a 4x400m relay bronze medalist at the 2012 London Olympics.

“In the training camps, it’s totally different in other countries; it’s good, some countries are really amazing, but it’s not my native (country). I can’t relax fully there.”

Ryzhykova has learned not to read the news on the days she has a competition, which means finding different ways to distract herself whenever thoughts of the war enter her mind.

“I use books, novels or something easier,” she said. “When I have bad thoughts, I’m going back to this novel, and [thinking], OK, what is my character doing? I need to concentrate on this. It’s my plan for competition day.”

CNN’s Svitlana Vlasova contributed to this report.

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