The pain was evident without words.
Tears overcame Ukrainian Sumo wrestler Alina Duzhenko for a moment before she got her chance to speak. Four other Ukrainian athletes sat nearby inside the World Games media center, waiting to tell their stories, staring numbly into the group of reporters and World Game officials. Once they got their chance to speak the words tumbled out for about 45 minutes.
Duzhenko composed herself, apologized for showing emotion and spoke eloquently about her life in her home country. Karate competitor Anzhelika Terliuga, fresh off winning the first World Games gold medal of her career, said tomorrow is unknown in her country, punctuating it with the poignant statement that she “hopes to survive.”
Stanislav Horuna, also a gold medalist in karate, spoke of his wife and son at home with bags packed ready to flee at any moment. Sumo wrestler Anatoli Khliusin, a soldier before and after the World Games, sat stoically while listening to his countrymates speak.
They all spoke of life. Some spoke of death, sprinkled with a healthy dose of the unknown.
Each was cordial and cooperative. Each expressed gratitude for the way they have been treated outside their country. It’s hard for them to go anywhere in Birmingham, they said, without someone stopping them with words of support. The standing ovations at the opening ceremonies and the competition venues were heard and felt.
“The crimes that are happening in Ukraine now, for over 100 days now, have nothing in common with sports,” Horuna said. “These crimes are against human values. I’m very thankful that you understand it and you share our pain.”
Russian troops invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, escalating differences that have lingered between the countries for many years. Life changed quickly.
Terliuga said her new normal includes seemingly endless sirens signifying her city is under attack. She knows the pattern of rockets defending the city and watches it unfold from her balcony. She told the story of a soccer coach from her city, who was hosting a camp with 60 children. The coach was told to send the children home, which he did. That night, a rocket struck the campsite and he was killed.
As she was speaking, the gold medal she’d sought for years was on the table in front of her.
“All these medals, it’s not for me,” Terliuga said. “I just want to bring something good to my family and my country. I would give everything I have just to stop it.”
Training for the competition was difficult, at best. Obviously, many times it took a backseat. Khliusin, who finished fifth in his weight class, wondered out loud if the inconsistent training had something to do with his finish. He didn’t offer it as an excuse.
“The training process, as you can imagine, [was] not completely prepared or fulfilled as it had to be,” said Illia Shevliak, the president of Ukraine’s sports committee.
Yet, Ukraine’s athletes have thrived during the competition. As of late afternoon on Monday, Ukraine had earned 23 medals, which was third-best in the competition. Ukraine’s nine gold medals were tied for second.
They have done this despite not fielding a full team. International World Games Association vice president Max Bishop said 141 Ukraine athletes were registered to compete but only 91 of those athletes arrived in Birmingham.
For the athletes, the time in Birmingham offers a chance to compete. However, the situation at home and the battle to end it is always on their minds.
“We have the attention and support from the whole world,” Horuna said. “Of course, on the first days, it was very scary because we did not know what would happen the next day. But we had no doubt that we can stand against [Russia] and that we will win. Now we are sure we will win, now we even see the way and how it will happen. It’s a long way, I guess. One year we will actively fight, but we will win. After, we will rebuild and we will get even stronger than we were before.”
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