Ukraine might have sent its smallest delegation of athletes ever to a world championships, but acting federation president Yevhen Pronin said the 22-strong team were just glad to be present in Eugene and offering up a glimmer of hope for compatriots.
Yaroslava Mahuchikh claimed a silver medal in the women’s high jump on Tuesday, a day after Andriy Protsenko claimed Ukraine’s first medal of these championships with bronze in the men’s high jump.
“Our country, our team are still in a difficult situation,” said Pronin, who hails from a military family and has spent the last four months on the frontline.
“Other teams can stay at home, train at home, see their parents, their children.”
Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February, a move that saw World Athletics ban athletes from Russia and Belarus from competing in international competition.
The embrace of Ukraine by the international community had been heart-warming, according to Pronin, who will return to the frontline post-Eugene for three weeks before hoping to make it to Munich for the European championships.
“When the war started in Ukraine… we all said we must be together in other countries, we must be together in Ukraine,” he said.
“We’re feeling a lot of support. The first day we came to a student dining room here in Eugene, five or six people asked ‘can we pay for your lunch?’
“You see a lot of Ukrainian flags in windows in Eugene, but it’s not Ukrainian athletes living there!”
No words for Putin
Pronin has a simple answer when asked whether there was a message he had for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The first message is no words. Five months ago, I can ask Putin to please stop the war, stop the soldiers, but when he killed 300 Ukrainian children, I have no words.
“We must only be doing something, not saying anything. They started this war but we must finish this war.”
High jumper Iryna Geraschenko, who left Ukraine on March 15 but aims to head back to Kyiv post-season on September 10, added: “I’m very thankful for our military, our soldiers, for this possibility” to compete.
Mahuchikh said the fact the Ukrainian team were taking part in Oregon had helped them form a strong bond, no more so when she medalled and returned to a traditional welcome by the entire team.
“I was so long in doping control, it was so late, but they were all there waiting up for me!” the world indoor champion said.
“We’re all together, we support each other, we’re like a big sports family.”
Fellow high jumper Yulia Levchenko said she was “so proud of every Ukrainian athlete because they still have opportunities to compete even if it’s a difficult situation for us. I hope for better”.
Competition, she said, was “for us like a separate life and we can do something for our soul and mind and still be helpful, and for the Ukrainian people it maybe gives them positive emotions”.
Ukraine’s situation has not been lost on World Athletics, with president Sebastian Coe helping to set up a foundation to provide funding for athletes.
“We have no money from government: when war starts, sports is not first place,” Pronin stressed.
Coe said it was “beyond my imagination to think about what they’re going through”.
“There have been some sobering moments on Facetime with federation presidents in full army kit in bunkers talking about their athletes and training camps,” the two-time former Olympic 1500m champion said.
“Some of them are living in training camps – they couldn’t get home. Some are wondering where loved ones are, houses have been destroyed, it’s inconceivable.”