As Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin continues to wage war on Ukraine in the weeks immediately following the Olympics, sports stories continue to make international headlines. Ahead of and during the Beijing Winter Olympics, the terrible conditions for Olympic athletes dominated the news, while the Uyghur genocide was a second tier news story. But now, it is the defense of Ukraine’s freedom that has placed athletics and athletes in the spotlight.
Last week, World Taekwondo pulled all future events from Russia. It also stripped Vladimir Putin of his honorary black belt in recognition that he is, as Ukrainian President Zelensky put it, behaving “like a beast.” Putin’s status as honorary president of the International Judo Federation (IJF) and the European Judo Union has been revoked, and he is no longer the recipient of the International Swimming Federation (FINA)’s highest honor.
In stunning displays of solidarity with the Ukrainian people, the National Hockey League announced they would suspend business partnerships with Russia; the Union Cycliste Internationale has banned Russian and Belarusian teams from competing; the World Curling Federation has removed the 2022 European Curling Championships from Russia; FIFA has suspended Russia from the World Cup; and multiple Russian athletes have voiced their support for Ukraine at great risk to themselves. Even the International Olympic Committee, which did not pull the 2022 Olympics out of China despite the ongoing genocide in that country, issued a recommendation that international sports federations not invite or allow Russian or Belarusian athletes to participate in international competitions.
But the most inspiring stories of all have been the Ukrainian athletes who have joined the fight for their homeland. The Ukrainian men’s fencing team withdrew from a World Cup event in Egypt, where they were set to face Russia. Wearing their national colors, the team announced, “Today, Ukrainian fencing team refused to fence team event against Russian Federation. This is our protest against the Russian aggression in Ukraine. Thank you for all international fencers for supporting Ukrainians in the world. Russia, stop war in Ukraine.” Instead of fencing, the team planned to return home and defend their country.
Ukrainian tennis star Sergiy Stakhovsky was vacationing with his wife and three children in Dubai when he heard the news of Russia’s invasion. He, too, decided to return home and defend his country. “I was born here, my grandparents are buried here, and I would like to have a history to tell to my kids,” he said. “Nobody here wants Russia to free them, they have freedom and democracy ... and Russia wants to bring despair and poverty.” His three children, all under seven, believe he is at a tennis tournament.
Ukrainian soccer coach Yuriy Vernydub left at the height of his career to fight for his country. “My son called me at 4:30 am and he told me the Russians attacked us. I knew then that I would return to Ukraine to fight,” he said. “Football is my life. I hope this war won’t last for long. We will win, and I will go back to my beloved work.”
The mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, and his brother, Wladimir, are former boxing champions who are ready to fend off Russian attacks. Waldimir commented, “I am Ukrainian, and I am a fighter…our strongest force is the will and desire to live in a free country.”
And the Klitschko brothers aren’t the only prizefighters bearing different arms. Champion boxers Vasily Lomachenko and Oleksander Usyki have returned to defend their homeland as well. When asked about his decision to fight, Ukrainian heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyki said, “My soul belongs to the Lord and my body and my honor belong to my country, to my family. So there is no fear, absolutely no fear. There’s just bafflement—how could this be in the 21st century?”
Across the country, Ukrainians—including three athletes, Vitalii Sapylo, Dmytro Martynenko, and Yevhen Malyshev—are willingly laying down their lives for their country to remain independent. These men and women are heroes—dying so that others may live free.
One of the reasons sports are good is because they have the ability to teach life lessons. They teach men and women to work hard, be the best they can be, work as a team, be mentally tough and courageous, and die to self for a greater good.
As Ukraine continues to struggle to maintain its independence, Ukrainian athletes are proving they have learned much more from sports than how to win gold medals. It is time for the rest of the world to learn a few lessons from Ukrainians.