Ukrainian Olympic Team Hopes to 'Raise Spirits' Back Home

Valentina Shevchenko of Ukraine carries the national flag as she leads the team during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014.
Valentina Shevchenko of Ukraine carries the national flag as she leads the team during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. Mark Humphrey / AP

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SOCHI, Russia — They’re competing in Sochi. Their minds are in Kiev.

The Ukrainian Olympic team — 43 athletes in all and with a single bronze medal to show for its performance here — is trying to finish a competition devoted to peace and harmony while its country is being torn apart.

On Thursday, the athletes hung black ribbons next to the yellow and blue flags draped from their balconies in the Olympic village. One skier withdrew from an event to show solidarity with the protesters engaged in brutal clashes with police back home.

“Every member of the Olympic team takes it very personally."

“Every member of the Olympic team takes it very personally,” Sergey Bubka, the president of the team and a former gold-medal pole vaulter, said in a statement. He said he hoped the athletes would “raise the spirits of our compatriots back home.”

Bubka, who won gold for the Soviet Union at the Seoul Games in 1988 and competed for Ukraine after the Soviet Union collapsed, is in something of an awkward spot. The Olympic movement insists that athletes and teams not use the games for political purposes.

His predecessor in the job is Viktor Yanukovych, now the president of Ukraine — the man who is clinging to power in Kiev while his security forces wage deadly street battles with demonstrators.

And the fight in the capital has everything to do with Russia, the Olympic host country, which supports Yanukovych and is trying to exert geopolitical influence in the former Soviet republic. The protesters want Ukraine to be more aligned with the European Union.

Ukraine, at its closest point to Sochi, is less than 300 miles up the Black Sea coast.

In Sochi, Ukrainian athletes observed a minute of silence on Wednesday in the Olympic village, and some of them reportedly considered wearing black armbands to honor the dead in Kiev. At least 28 people have been killed in violent demonstrations in recent days.

But the International Olympic Committee has frowned on similar commemorations at the Sochi Games. An Australian snowboarder wanted to wear a sticker on her helmet to remember a friend who died in a training crash. The IOC said no.

Mark Adams, a spokesman for the IOC, denied that the organization had forbidden the Ukrainian team from wearing armbands. He said the IOC met with Ukrainian team officials, who concluded that “there were other ways of marking this moment.”

“There are 2,800 athletes here, so you can imagine there are, sadly, a lot of people with personal tragedy in their lives, some with big political tragedy, some with personal tragedy — friends, loved ones, some athletes, some not athletes,” Adams told reporters.

“The idea is to try to help them find other ways. We understand their grief, but to find other ways — the multi-faith center, individually — to mark those moments.”

At least one member of the team decided to mark the moment by stepping aside.

A photo taken on Feb. 15, 2014 shows Ukraine's Bogdana Matsotska after the Women's Alpine Skiing Super-G at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center during the Sochi Winter Olympics.FRANCK FIFE / AFP - Getty Images

Bogdana Matsotska, an Alpine skier, pulled out of the slalom competition, scheduled for Friday. Her father and coach, Oleg Matsotskyy, said in a posting on Facebook that she was showing support for “the fighters on the barricades of Independence Square.”

He said both of them were outraged by Yanukovych's actions, who “sank our latest hopes into Ukrainian blood” and broke with “the primordial principle of having peace during the Olympic Games.”

“We refuse further performance at the Olympic Games in Sochi 2014,” the father wrote. “Long live the memory of the fallen heroes of Ukraine for freedom! Glory to Ukraine and its heroes!”

“Long live the memory of the fallen heroes of Ukraine for freedom! Glory to Ukraine and its heroes!”

Matsotska, 24, finished 27th in the super-G and 43rd in the giant slalom earlier in the Sochi Olympics.

Ukraine’s only medal here was won by Vita Semerenko, who placed third in the women’s 7½-kilometer sprint biathlon competition. Semerenko has a twin sister, Valj, who placed 12th in the same event and jokingly told her: “How dare you!”

“For Ukraine, winning this medal is very important,” Vita Semerenko said after she won her bronze. “It is hopefully not my last one and other girls will follow, too."

But that was on Feb. 9, a week and a half before simmering demonstrations in Kiev erupted into full-blown clashes. As they finish their competitions, some Ukrainian athletes are trickling back into the country, a different place than the one they left for the short trip to Sochi.

Bubka said Thursday that he met with Matsotska and her coach, and that they decided to stay in Sochi — even while not competing in the slalom — to support Matsotska’s teammates. In particular, Bubka said, they are pulling for the women’s biathlon team in the relay on Friday night. Ukraine is considered a contender to win its second medal.

The Ukrainian team strongly denied reports floating around on Thursday that the whole delegation was returning home early. Bubka said he hoped that by staying, the athletes would be “promoting the mission to unite our nation at this horrifying time.”

— Ghazi Balkiz and Albina Kovalyova of NBC News contributed to this report from Sochi.