The Washington Post
A respite as war rages
At track world championships, Ukrainians try to put Russian invasion out of their minds
eugene, ore. — When the war started, Anna Ryzhykova could not eat. She worried about her friends living with their children in basements, without food and water. She helped some of them move west, away from the invading Russian soldiers and the worst danger. She stopped training and rarely contemplated her career as an elite 400-meter hurdler.
“At that moment, I couldn’t think anything about sport,” Ryzhykova said. “Then I understood the war won’t end tomorrow or next week. I started thinking about what I could do. Some of my teammates, some of my friends told me I should continue my sports career. I understood we could speak and do interviews. We could talk about war, and people should know they can help us and support us. People should know the truth about the situation in Ukraine.”
On Tuesday, Ryzhykova ran once around the Hayward Field oval and cleared 10 hurdles at the track and field world championships, wearing a yellowand-blue ribbon in her hair and yellowand-blue makeup on her eyes. She is one of 22 Ukrainian athletes who are competing in Eugene after five months of worrying for loved ones, moving around the world to continue training and overcoming unthinkable circumstances.
On consecutive nights, two Ukrainian high jumpers captured medals. Andriy Protsenko won bronze Monday, just months after he moved from the besieged city of Kherson to a rural village without training equipment. He scrounged for supplies, turning an iron bar and two tires into a barbell for squatting.
“There was no high jumping, but I found the possibility to run,” he said. “It was not so difficult to find something to create the equipment. The main thing was to find the motivation to train — but fortunately I could do it.”
“After that, I understand that anything is possible,” Ryzhykova said. “Andriy trained for one month in an occupied city. To go out there with the risk of his life and his family and win a bronze medal, it was so amazing. I was almost crying.”
Shortly before she qualified for the world championships, high jumper Yaroslava Mahuchikh saw two rockets destroy a building in the city center near where she lives. People she knew survived but suffered wounds. On Tuesday, after she leaped 2.02 meters (6 feet 71/ inches), Mahuchikh
2 looked at the silver medal hanging around her neck.
“For me,” she said, “it’s gold.”
Over the past five months, Ukrainian athletes have spread out across the world
to continue training, moving to Portugal, Turkey, Poland and elsewhere. Hurdler Viktoriya Tkachuk helped her parents move from a particularly dangerous area just north of Kyiv but had to leave them behind when she relocated to Portugal and Turkey.
“It was so hard for me,” Tkachuk said. “I’m so happy now they’re [in] a safe place.” She paused. “Almost a safe place.”
The forced movement led the Athletics Integrity Unit, the drug testing arm of global track and field, to provide a waiver for one portion of its program. Athletes typically are under strict obligation to share their location and be prepared for random tests. The AIU granted exemptions to seven Ukrainians, it announced last week.
World Athletics, track and field’s governing body, became one of the first sports organizations to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes in February. President Sebastian Coe said it would be “inconceivable” to allow “two aggressor nations who walked into an independent state” to compete while Ukrainians confronted “extremely challenging” circumstances to qualify, a sentiment Ukrainian athletes agreed with.
“We won’t compete with murderers,” Ryzhykova said. “If they keep silent, they support their government. It’s impossible in the real world to compete with people like them.”
“Every sportsman from Russia has a chance to say something,” Tkachuk said. “No one said anything, even in a personal message. They are not supporting us. They are not supporting Ukraine. So it means they support [President Vladimir] Putin and everything that Russia is doing with Ukraine now.”
Crowds at Hayward Field have embraced Ukrainian athletes. Fans roared Tuesday night each time Mahuchikh and Iryna Gerashchenko cleared a bar. “I realized it’s not only because I am the best,” Gerashchenko, who set a personal best as she finished fourth, said through an interpreter. “It’s because I am from Ukraine. It means these people support our really strong nation.”
Ukrainian athletes have embraced not only the chance to compete but also the opportunity to communicate with a global audience. They have unfailingly stopped in the mixed zone, the mazelike area where athletes speak with reporters, to share their experiences and opinions.
“It’s important people see us, that we are from Ukraine,” Ryzhykova said. “I want to tell that we are highly motivated here, not just because we are representing our country. Recently, the president from our federation came from the front. He is in the army.
He came here and told us our army boys and girls who are there, they’re checking the news and reading the sports news. And they are waiting for good news from us.”
The world championships provide a respite for Ukrainian athletes. The war rages near their friends and families. Some will travel to other international competitions. Some will return home, and others will return to countries they have temporarily adopted. The war is never far from their minds — except in the fleeting moments when they are running around the track or leaping over the bar.
“I feel normal just when I run,” Ryzhykova said. “I’m not thinking about anything. I’m just concentrating on my hurdles and my lane. And I’m fighting with time, with myself.
“In this moment, I feel free. I feel free in my mind. I’m just doing my job.”