Ukraine Crisis Casts Shadow on Paralympics in Sochi

Wednesday, 05 Mar 2014 09:33 AM

 

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Russia's President Vladimir Putin will open the Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi on Friday with the event tainted by his intervention in Ukraine.

Putin's presence is set to dominate the opening ceremony in the presence of about 1,600 disabled athletes from about 45 countries.

Russia topped the medals table at the Olympic Winter Games last month, and the event was widely seen as a triumph. International praise of the impressive ceremonies was a boost to Putin's attempt to showcase Russia as a modern, successful country.

However the backdrop to this celebration of sport will be very different after Putin supported the seizure by pro-Moscow armed forces of Ukraine's region of Crimea, northwest of Sochi across the Black Sea.

Ukraine has said it will withdraw its complete Paralympic team unless Putin reverses the military intervention.

The United States, Britain and Norway at least have said they will not send government delegations to the opening ceremony.

"I believe it would be wrong for UK Ministers to attend the Sochi Paralympics," Prime Minister David Cameron said on Twitter.

American and British athletes will still compete for gold medals in Alpine and cross-country skiing, biathlon, ice-sledge hockey and wheelchair curling at the Games which run until March 16.

Putin has denounced the reactions.

"I think it would be the height of cynicism to threaten the realization of the Paralympic Games," he told journalists.

This is an international sports forum, where people with disabilities can "prove to themselves and the world that they are people without limitations," he said.

"If someone tries to ruin them... that means that nothing is sacred for the people who make such attempts."

 

 

Ukrainian athletes, training with heavy hearts in Sochi and ready to compete, are nevertheless going to say goodbye to their Olympic dreams if Russia does not pull out its troops, a spokeswoman for the team told AFP Tuesday.

If that does not happen, "we will boycott despite years of preparation," spokeswoman Natalia Garach said. "We cannot participate in the games hosted by the country that attacked our country."

Top model Natalia Vodyanova, who is one of the Sochi ambassadors and a torchbearer for the Paralympic Games, this week said she was "ashamed to continue promoting the Paralympics, advocate its importance" during the crisis.

"Historically all the wars and conflicts stopped for the period of Olympic Games and it's not the call of today's politician to change this tradition," she wrote in an emotional Facebook post.

"I am very concerned about how the situation with Ukraine is influencing the Paralympic Games," she wrote, adding that "it is a unique, long awaited and the only one of its scale opportunity for the disabled people in Russia to make a stand".

The 2014 event will be the first Paralympic Games in Russia. Disabled athletes were never sent from the Soviet Union until 1988 in the perestroika period, and people with disabilities were generally stigmatized in Soviet society, frequently kept in special homes.

Wheelchair-bound people living in cities are still often kept prisoner in their own houses by the lack of suitable elevators and ramps. The city of Moscow only last year began to equip some city crosswalks with sound signals for people with visual impairments.

The rights of people with disabilities to equal access are still a long way from being recognized in modern Russia, Human Rights Watch said in a recent report, but the Paralympic Games are an opportunity to secure commitment from authorities on the issue.

People "still face many obstacles to enjoying access to many elements of daily life", the organization said after interviewing over 100 people from across Russia.

 

© AFP 2014

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