Russia opened its first ever Winter Paralympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi yesterday, an opportunity for people with disabilities to triumph, but which the crisis in Ukraine threatens to derail.
Amid a chill reminiscent of the Cold War, athletes continued to train ahead of the opening ceremony, which was scheduled for 8:14pm and raised their national flags at the Olympic Village at the welcoming ceremony on Thursday.
Among them were 31 Ukrainians, yet to announce their final decision on whether they plan to compete or pack their bags and go home in protest of the host country’s intervention in Crimea across the Black Sea.
The team, clad in the yellow and blue national colors, sang the anthem as their flag was raised and chanted “Peace to Ukraine.”
Ukraine’s Olympic Committee was set to announce yesterday whether they would boycott Sochi, after lawmakers in the Crimean Peninsula announced they want to join Russia.
Crimea has been a point of contention since the beginning of the month as Kiev accused Moscow of sending troops there to block key facilities, while Russian President Vladimir Putin said he intends to use military force to protect Russian-speaking people from the “extremist” opposition who have overthrown the former Ukrainian regime.
Biathlete and skier Grygoriy Vovchinsky, who won two silver and two bronze medals at the Vancouver Paralympics in 2010, called for peace among speakers of all languages in Ukraine.
“We love all of Ukraine the way it is!!! Let people speak the way they like and the way it is easier — Russian, Ukrainian or English, it does not matter and may God give us the energy to learn to understand each other!!!” he wrote on Facebook.
Russia’s behavior in Ukraine has led the US, Britain and Norway to cancel their government delegations to Sochi, although athletes from those countries are still set to compete.
After the glitz of the Winter Olympics last month, the Olympic Park looked strangely empty on Thursday, with workers putting the finishing touches to the tri-colored Paralympic symbol that replaced the ubiquitous five rings.
Russia’s team placed first in the Winter Olympics, an unexpected success which was a major boost to national pride.
In an interview this week, Putin said he expects the Paralympic team to do the same.
A total of 45 countries and 575 athletes are set to compete in Sochi.
Soviet Russia did not participate in the Paralympic movement until the 1988 Games in Seoul and people with disabilities often remained invisible in society, unable to exit their apartments or even sent to special homes.
The stigma against people with disabilities still persists in the country, which only recently began to invest in urban infrastructure that ensures equal access.
Moscow last year put in tactile paving and sound signals at traffic lights for visually impaired pedestrians.
In Sochi, wheelchair-accessible buses were running from the airport on Thursday, but the center of the hilly city remained an obstacle course, with some ramps leading to nowhere and elevators permanently shut off.