Updated: Sunday, 16 March 2014 00:29 | By Agence France-Presse

Ukraine athletes show pride in Sochi before Crimea vote

"Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes" - the slogan of Kiev's Independence Square sounded out of place in Sochi, the Russian winter sports showpiece where the Paralympic Games were drawing to a close Saturday. 

Ukraine athletes show pride in Sochi before Crimea vote

L-R: Ukraine's Ihor Reptyukh, Vitaliy Kazakov, Olena Iurkovska, Iurii Utkin, Borys Babar and Vitaliy Lukyanenko after Cross-country skiing 4x2,5 km Mixed Open at XI Paralympic Olympic games close to Sochi on March 15, 2014 - by Kirill Kudryavtsev

In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin was not far away from the Ukrainian athletes as they uttered the chant while posing for pictures after finishing second in the cross country ski relay. 

A proud team of 31 they had vowed early on to stay and compete with the message of peace even after Russia's intervention in Ukraine's Crimea peninsula just across the Black Sea.

The athletes said it had been difficult to watch the unravelling crisis from Sochi, even though they were happy with their sporting successes that secured the team an overall third place. 

"It was very sad, very difficult to train and compete when in your country such terrible events are happening," said Olena Yurkovska, as she held her silver medal just received for the relay. 

The last time she was at home in the Kiev region was four months ago, she said, before the start of protests on Maidan, or Independence Square, that eventually led to a hundred deaths and ultimately a regime change in the country. 

As they prepared for daily races, the team also watched the news on Ukraine, and were not happy about the Sunday referendum in the Crimea, a region that is about to vote on whether or not they want to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. 

"We just hope that everything turns out okay in Ukraine," said visually impaired skier Oksana Shishkova, from Kharkiv. 

-'Aggression and sports incompatible'-

Ukraine seriously considered boycotting the Paralympic Games early this month, but the head of Ukraine's Paralympic Committee Valery Sushkevich met with Putin on March 6, and announced just hours before the opening ceremony they would remain to compete. 

Sushkevich met with Putin for the second time Saturday, one day before the closing ceremony, he told AFP, without revealing any details. 

Putin also congratulated the Ukrainians on their second place in the relay and took pictures with some of the athletes, the Kremlin's website said.

"I am very glad that no real military conflict in Crimea started during Paralympic Games," Sushkevich said. "For me that is one achievement of the Games."

He said the 10-day event had proved challenging for the national team as athletes wanted to protest Russia's actions, but had to abide by strict rules of the International Paralympic Committee which had warned against any political demonstrations. 

One of their decisions was for athletes to cover their medals with the palms of their hands at award ceremonies. 

"By covering the medal, the athlete shows that peace in his country is important to him," he said. 

"Because unfortunately the medal was produced by and is being awarded by the host country who acted as an aggressor toward his country. It's a demonstration that aggression and the high ideals of paralympic sports are incompatible."

He said that the political situation has depressed some of the younger athletes, ruining their performance, while older athletes excelled under pressure.

"Practically all our young athletes could not handle the psychological pressure of such a difficult situation in the country," he said. 

Skier Oleksandra Kononova, 23, who had been aiming for five gold medals in Sochi simply crumbled, winning just one Friday after her husband, also Paralympic champion Grygoriy Vovchinsky, spent hours consoling her and "guiding her out of her depression," Sushkevich said.

Meanwhile 35-year-old Vitaliy Lukyanenko surprised everyone by winning two gold medals. 

"It was his maturity and his ability to mobilise when the country is in pain," Sushkevich said.

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