Amid unrest, Ukraine also a Winter Games bidder

McClatchy Foreign StaffFebruary 20, 2014 

Ukraine Protest

Activists have a rest at the burning barricades, on the side of bloody clashes close to Independence Square, the epicenter of the country's current unrest, Kiev, Ukraine


— Just as the 2014 Winter Olympics winds down in this politically sensitive part of the world, Olympic organizers may consider holding the 2022 winter sports festival in another potential hot spot: Ukraine.

Representatives from the Ukrainian government and the country’s Olympic committee were in Sochi Thursday to state their case for why their country — currently mired in a deadly civil unrest — would be the perfect place to host the games.

“The Olympic idea is bigger than politics,” Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Oleksander Vilkul said here. “The Ukraine is solving political problems and will come out stronger and more consolidated than before.”

Sergei Bubka, president of Ukraine’s Olympic Committee and a 1988 Summer Games pole vault gold medalist, said Ukraine’s current political unrest — which has resulted in the deaths of at least 28 people around Kiev — will be a distant memory by the time 2022 rolls around.

“It’s eight years before the games start,” Bubka said. “I think it (unrest) will be settled. We are building our future and democracy. People have the possibility to express their views. Many issues in this moment will be solved shortly. Politicians are working very hard to make change and improve the situation in our country.”

If selected by the International Olympic Committee, Ukraine would be the latest problematic place to host the Winter Games. The nation is reportedly up against Almaty, Kazakhstan; Beijing; Krakow, Poland; and Oslo, Norway.

The 2014 games finish here Sunday. Pyeongchang, South Korea, hosts the 2018 Winter Games. South Korea shares an uneasy border with North Korea, where mercurial president, Kim Jong Un, is prone to attention-grabbing saber rattling.

Ukraine wants to host the 2022 Winter Games in Lviv, a city of about 725,300 people that’s about 337 miles from Kiev and 43 miles from the border with Poland. It is regarded as one of Ukraine’s cultural centers.

Its Olympic organizers painted an idyllic setting Thursday for Lviv 2022 with a downtown Olympic park, an urban bobsled track, medal plaza and athlete’s village. Skiing and extreme sport venues would take place in a mountain cluster area.

“The Olympic Games are a holiday with a capital H,” Valentyna Tserbe-Nessina, a Ukrainian biathlete who won a bronze at the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. “Ukraine deserves it and will host it.”

But the current unrest in Ukraine has been felt in Sochi. Some of the country’s 43 Olympic athletes, shaken by events at home, have reportedly withdrawn from competition, despite IOC and Ukrainian Olympic officials telling them that the best way to honor the dead is to compete in their events.

Bogdana Matsotska, a Ukrainian skier, wrote a message on her Facebook page that she and team member Oleg Matsotsky, were outraged by the latest actions of Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych.

“To show our solidarity with those fighting on the Maidan barricades and our protest against the bandit president and his lackey government, we refuse to perform at the 2014 Sochi Olympics,” Matsotska’s post said.

IOC spokesman Mark Adams said Bubka met with the athletes and “he respects absolutely every athletes’ decision to what they think is best in the circumstances.”

IOC and Ukrainian officials also met with the country’s Olympians who discussed wearing black armbands to show respect for the country’s dead.

“They discussed what should be done, and they reached the conclusion there were other ways of marking this moment,” Adams said. “They had a minute’s silence in the (Olympic) village yesterday so they were not forbidden to wear black armbands.”

Ukrainian officials made their pitch in an Olympic city that came under fire for its proximity to potential danger and terrorism. Nearby Chechnya is the scene of two bitter civil wars, home of anti-Vladimir Putin Muslim rebels and the homeland of the family of the two Boston Marathon bombing suspects.

Last July, Doku Umarov, a Chechen rebel leader, released a video over the Internet that implored his followers to use “maximum force” to disrupt the Sochi Games.

Responding to fears, Putin placed a so-called “Ring of Steel” around the Olympic site, using tens of thousands of FSB agents, police, Cossacks, and high-tech equipment to protect athletes and spectators.

But the Sochi Games haven’t been free of political controversy. A transgender former member of Italy’s Parliament was removed from the Olympic area earlier this week after she protested Russia’s anti-propaganda law — widely viewed as an anti-gay measure — by displaying a flag that read being gay is okay and later shouting the slogan in Olympic Park.

Two members of the anti-Putin Russian Punk band Pussy Riot were detained by police on Tuesday and then whipped and pepper-sprayed by uniformed Cossacks on Wednesday in Sochi. They were in town to shoot an anti-Putin music video.

The governor of the Krasnodar region, which includes Sochi, said Thursday that he has launched an investigation into the whipping. Adams called the video of the incident “unsettling.”

“I know that the Krasnodar governor has apologized and expressed his regret about what happened and has launched an investigation,” Adams said. “Clearly, it happened in Sochi, but it was unrelated to an Olympic venue and was not, as far as I know, a demonstration against the Olympics.”

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