A year ago, these Ukrainians were Olympians. Now, they are in the thick of war.
Part of Perspectives Guest Writes
Interviewed by MAXIM SIDORENKO.
Edited for article format by James Baldwin.
A Ukrainian flag flies as President Joe Biden addresses crowds in Warsaw, Poland last week
Dmytro Zavadsky was a badminton player for Ukraine in 2012. He had reached what many consider to be the height of an athlete’s career, playing for his country at the London Olympic Games. But now he faces a very different situation to the one he was preparing for a decade ago. On February 24th, “huge explosions” confirmed many Ukrainians’ worst fears; that Russia had, after months of build-up, invaded the sovereign nation.
Dmytro was in Kharkiv at the time, and has since had his home torn apart by the conflict. After taking a trip to Kyiv, Dmytro “put [his] parents on the evacuation train, and had a 40 hours ride to a small village near Lviv with [his] wife, her mum, and [their] dog”. He then made the tough decision to send his family to Poland before driving back into the Lviv oblast.
On the other side of the coin, whilst Mariia Ulitina may have reached the safe confines of Hungary, her family have not. She managed to escape Dnipro, a city in the centre of Ukraine - one which Russian forces may attempt to use to carve the country in two - thanks to the efforts of the Ukrainian Badminton Federation. She is one of the most successful badminton players to emerge from Ukraine; having reached the Last 16 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Remarkably, she has been able to represent her country in the past month at the All England Open Badminton Championships.
“I know that the best I can do for the country is to continue playing badminton and wave the [Ukrainian] flag all around the world”, she said. Mariia, though, is worried for her family. It “makes her weak” thinking of people suffering from fear of being bombed.
She is thankful to the Badminton World Federation - and singles out the UK: "The UK did amazing things for me at All England”.
The third badminton player, Artem Pochtarev, has not escaped. He is in Kyiv, but his family is where Dmytro emerged from - Kharkiv. That is, what is left of both his native city and relatives.
“Kharkiv is getting ruined by Russian forces! I have no words for it all; it is so painful…especially after what has happened to my father. He was killed. My mother and grandmother [...] do not want to move from Kharkiv.”
Artem represented Ukraine most recently just last Summer, at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which had been postponed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. With concerns over grain supply, Artem is now a badminton player turned farmer. “I’ll do everything to supply Ukrainians with food. We will work to make sure that we will have a harvest this year.”
From a farmer in Artem, to a soldier in Dmytro. Back in the besieged Kharkiv, he has joined the Ukrainian territorial defence squad, a unit for volunteers established following the invasion. “It wasn’t a question for me. Right now, most of the time, we are patrolling the city during the nights and helping our military on the road checkpoints.” Dmytro ends his interview by using two words, but a powerful two nonetheless: “stay safe” to everyone reading.
Three badminton players. One is still playing; one is a farmer; and one is a soldier. None of these Olympians expected themselves to be in this position. Yet there is something quite stunning about the spirit they all show.
Even amidst the tragic loss of his father, Artem is positive, exclaiming that he has “no doubts - we will win!”. Meanwhile, Dmytro echoes confidently that “truth is on our side, and we will win”. It is this strength and sense of nationhood which has caught the Russian forces off guard. It may just be that which gives Ukraine a chance of winning this war.
But there is still a naturally sombre feel with all the athletes. Artem may be proud to be a farmer, but there will be a huge problem with food security in the months to come. Certain cities, such as the all but destroyed Mariupol, are already suffering from hunger. Dmytro requests help from anyone, “no matter what. Meetings, money, posts on social media, humanitarian help. Just do it.” And Mariia has nowhere to go, needing “accommodation or some help to cover the cost of rent”. Whatever the outcome of this catastrophic war, the devastation to many Ukrainians’ lives will be felt for much longer to come.
Maxim Sidorenko is a Ukrainian sports journalist and badminton blogger. Despite working on the 2021 Olympics himself, Maxim is now doing “everything to share the truth about the war and people who need the support.” To find more on Maxim’s work, follow this link: https://www.badminton-help-ukraine.co.uk/uk/about-us.
Image: Flickr / ewitsoe