Issue 66, March 2014.

Sochi Olympic Recap: Ukraine Wins First Gold Since 1994

From the time former world bronze medallist cross-country skier Valentina Shevchenko, competing in her fourth Olympics, walked into Fisht Stadium in Sochi during the Opening Ceremonies with the Ukrainian flag to the rapturous welcome from the Russian fans, one could tell that the 22nd Olympic Winter Games would turn out to be something special for Ukraine. Led by our world class women’s biathlon team, the Ukrainian Olympic Committee had high hopes to end a 20-year gold medal drought and to put up a good showing in advance of the IOC’s decision to shortlist the 2022 Olympic bid cities (including Lviv) this summer. By the end of the spectacle, the Olympic Games in Sochi turned out to be memorable for the Ukrainian athletes … and not just because of the results in the events.

Lugers Lead the Way; Semerenko Medals Early

While the Olympics kicked off with the new Team Figure Skating event that saw Ukraine finish in 9th place, most Leopolitan Olympic fans were watching the lugers from Lviv compete during the first week. Lviv’s own Roman Zakharkiv and Oleksandr Oblonchyk finished a strong 17th in the men’s double event, while in the new mixed team event, the Ukrainian team, anchored by Lviv’s Andriy Kis in his third Olympic Games, finished 11th. The highlight of week one was undoubtedly the bronze medal finish by Vita Semerenko. In an event where any one of the four Ukrainian women could have medalled, including sister Valentyna who finished 12th, it was Vita that came up with the performance to remember. Not missing a single shot, she narrowly missed out on silver by less than 2 seconds, guaranteeing Ukraine its first medal since 2006 in Turin, Italy and giving Ukrainian sports fans a reason to celebrate.

Women’s Biathlon Strikes Gold; Trouble At Home

Events in Kyiv threatened to overshadow the second week of events in Sochi, which saw most Ukrainian athletes complete their events against the backdrop of a revolution back home. Highlights included a 9th-place finish by former European champion Serhiy Semenov in the men’s individual biathlon and a career-best 6th-place finish for three-time Olympian Oleksandr Abramenko in the men’s aerials event. Those performances were just a precursor to what had to be the crowning moment of Ukrainian athletics at the 2014 Winter Games: the women biathlon team’s golden performance in the relay event. Their commanding performance, which saw them finish nearly 30 seconds ahead of 2nd-place Russia, was the first gold medal for Ukraine since Oksana Baiul won the 1994 women’s figure skating event and was the first time a nation other than Russia, Norway, or Germany had ever won the event. The win, as it were, came just days after scores were killed during the protests in Kyiv and on the same day that deposed former President Yanukovych fled the city. The events placed a great deal of stress on Ukrainian athletes still left to compete. After the International Olympic Committee refused Ukrainian athletes’ requests to wear black armbands to honour those who died in Kyiv, athletes responded to the events in different ways. Many athletes that had already competed – nearly half of the entire team – decided to skip the Closing Ceremonies and return home. Some athletes, including cross-country skiers Marina Lisogor and Kateryna Serdyuk as well as downhill skier Bogdana Matsotska, refused to compete. As Matsotska stated, “In solidarity with the fighters on the barricades of the Maidan, and as a protest against the criminal actions made towards the protesters, the irresponsibility of the president and his issues with the government, we refuse further performance at the Olympic Games in Sochi 2014". Our golden biathletes remembered those that gave their lives in Kyiv as well; reigning world champion Olena Pidhrushna at the press conference following their golden performance requested a minute’s silence to honour those that had perished.

From Sochi 2014 to Lviv 2022: Lessons Learned

Based on her double-medal performance, making her Ukraine’s most decorated Winter Olympian of all-time, Vita Semerenko was honoured as Ukraine’s flag bearer at the Closing Ceremonies. Joining athletes from every other nation that competed, the diminished crew of Ukrainian athletes left in Sochi watched as the Olympic flag was handed over to the mayor of PyeongChang, South Korea – hosts of the next Winter Games in 2018. Olympic fans in Lviv were sure to be thinking of what that ceremony could look like in four years, with the same mayor handing over the Olympic flag to Lviv. Visions of watching the Lviv’s lauded lugers compete on the first-ever urban Winter Games luge track in central Lviv danced in the minds of some, while others dreamt of the thrill of watching Ukraine’s national hockey team take on the superstars from Russia with the hopes of completing their own “Miracle on Ice”. But most dreamed of watching our biathlete heroines win the gold medal at home to the wild cheers of an adoring nation. “Great proof of how sport can unite the nation”, remarked Ukrainian Olympic Committee President and pole-vaulting legend Sergey Bubka following the women’s gold medal performance and in reference to the tragic events in Kyiv the previous days. Here’s to hoping that we can all witness that occasion, eight years from now on the glistening slopes of the Carpathians, in a united Ukraine.