Fitness

Ukrainian Paralympians Complete 2 Podium Sweeps in One Day of Biathlon at Winter Games Amid Turmoil in Home Country

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The fourth day of Paralympic competition ended on a high note for six Ukrainian athletes. On March 8, the athletes completed two podium sweeps in the day’s biathlon events, marking the third time in the Beijing Games that Ukrainian athletes took the top three spots in an event. The strong finishes come as tragedy and turmoil continue to unfold in their home country due to Russia’s invasion.

The Ukrainian women’s standing biathlon team earned the country’s first 1-2-3 finish of the day in the 10K middle distance event. Then, hours later, the Ukrainian men swept their podium along with the top five spots in the middle-distance event in the visually impaired discipline.

For the women’s standing biathlon event, Iryna Bui took home gold, while Oleksandra Kononova earned silver and Liudmyla Liashenko won bronze. On the men’s side, Vitaliy Lukyanenko finished first—becoming the most decorated male Paralympic biathlete of all time, according to NPR—while Anatolii Kovalevskyi took second and Dmytro Suiarko third.

Ukraine also earned the first podium sweep of the 2022 Winter Games on the first day of competition, when the men finished 1-2-3 in the visually impaired sprint biathlon race.

After Tuesday’s sweep, the athletes told Japan’s Kyodo News that they hope their showings help bring attention to the dire situation in their country, which has been under Russian attack for nearly two weeks. (On March 3, Paralympic organizers banned athletes from Russia and Belarus from competing in the Beijing Games.)

“We would like to dedicate our results and medals to each and every Ukrainian and all the soldiers in the Ukrainian army who protect us,” Bui told the outlet. “With our performance we represent the whole country and this is our battle, here.”

According to NPR, many of the Ukrainian athletes have been open about the struggles of competing on their sport’s biggest stage while worrying about the safety of their families back home. As Suiarko told The Guardian after winning bronze in his event, the distraction is felt especially in biathlon—a sport that intersperses target shooting amid cross-country runs, and where inaccuracy in the former is penalized by added laps or a time addition.

“I am happy, but you know the situation in Ukraine,” he said to The Guardian. “Very hard concentration is needed in biathlon and I missed twice because yesterday my house where I live, it was bombed and destroyed.”

The fighting has taken a toll on the athletes, and some have withdrawn from competition as a result. According to NPR, Liashenko pulled out of her cross-country event on March 7 after learning her house in Kharkiv was destroyed. And 19-year-old Anastasiia Laletina withdrew from the middle distance sitting biathlon event on March 8, after learning her father—a Ukrainian soldier—was captured by Russian forces, as a team spokesperson confirmed to USA Today.

Valerii Sushkevych, the president of Ukraine’s Paralympic committee, told The New York Times that he could tell his athletes haven’t been sleeping and are stressed about news of their loved ones.

“I ask the athletes in the morning, ‘Did you sleep?’ I ask another, ‘Did you sleep?’ They say, ‘No, no,’” he told the outlet. “They have dull, sad faces. The mood is very difficult. We are all thinking of home.”

What happens next for the Ukrainian athletes after the Beijing Games conclude is not yet clear, though many are hoping to use their positions to raise awareness for what’s going on in their country.

“We’re here to represent our country,” cross-country skiing gold medalist Oksana Shyshkova told The New York Times, “to glorify our country, to tell the world that Ukraine exists.”

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