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Ukrainian athletes barely make it to Beijing Paralympics after ‘miracle’ escape

Dodging bombs and sleeping on floors, delegation arrives at Winter Paralympics in Beijing, eager to be ‘a symbol to show that Ukraine is alive’

International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Chief Brand and Communications Officer Craig Spence, left, and President Andrew Parsons listen as a journalist from Ukraine asks a question during a press conference at the 2022 Winter Paralympics in Beijing, March 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Chief Brand and Communications Officer Craig Spence, left, and President Andrew Parsons listen as a journalist from Ukraine asks a question during a press conference at the 2022 Winter Paralympics in Beijing, March 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

BEIJING, China (AFP) — The arrival of Ukrainian athletes at Beijing’s Winter Paralympics is a “miracle,” the team’s top official said Thursday, with some narrowly escaping bombs as they left during the Russian invasion.

Ukraine Paralympic committee president Valeriy Sushkevych said his team had been overwhelmed with solidarity since arriving in the Chinese capital a day prior and that the athletes had been determined to compete.

“I can say that this is a miracle that we managed to be here at the Paralympic Games,” he told reporters.  “The easiest way for us would have been to not go to the Paralympics.. But we couldn’t give up and not come.”

On Thursday, a week after Moscow sent its troops across the border into neighboring Ukraine, the International Paralympic Committee banned Russian athletes from competing in the Games, reversing an earlier decision.

The IPC said many countries had expressed their support for Ukraine and threatened to boycott the event if Russia was allowed to compete.

Sushkevych noted that his team’s presence in Beijing would lift the spirits of those living in terror at home.

Russian President Vladimir Putin talks via videoconference with members of the Russian Paralympic Committee team ahead of the XIII Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing, in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 21, 2022. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

“A superpower wants to destroy my country. And our presence here at the Paralympic Games, it’s not just a presence. It’s a sign that Ukraine was, is, and will remain a country,” he said. “For us, it is a matter of principle to be here, it’s a symbol to show that Ukraine is alive.”

The logistical nightmare of leaving the country meant he had slept on the floor of a bus for several days.

“Many of our team members had difficulties escaping the bombs,” he said.

The Eastern European country has punched above its weight in previous Paralympic winter events, with frequent podium finishes in the biathlon and ski competitions.

Lee Reaney, a Canadian journalist working for the Kyiv Post talks to reporters before the start of a press conference by International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons at the 2022 Winter Paralympics, March 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

The delegation took home 22 medals in 2018 — including seven golds — the sixth-highest global tally.

As biathlon events kick off Saturday, team members are now focused on the job at hand — preparing for competition.

“There are two frontlines right now. One is in Ukraine for our soldiers. And one is here in Beijing,” Sushkevych said.

Biathletes hit the slopes for skiing and shooting training in Zhangjiakou on Thursday.

While their fellow citizens took up arms to defend themselves, the biathletes shot targets on mats in the snow — one using a hot pink gun with painted flowers.

For some of the team, the emotional rollercoaster and disrupted focus will be a case of deja vu.

During Russia’s hosting of the Winter Paralympics in 2014, Ukrainian athletes had to grapple with Moscow’s takeover of the Crimean peninsula.

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