ZHANGJIAKOU, China, March 11 (Reuters) - Valerii Sushkevych knows all too well the emotional toll the war in Ukraine has taken on his athletes, but the president of the country's paralympic committee says it has also helped them at the Beijing Games to win their biggest haul of gold medals ever.
Ukraine's paralympic team barely made it to the Chinese capital due to logistical challenges caused by the war, which began with Russia's invasion on Feb. 24. read more
Ukrainian cities have been under heavy Russian bombardment while the team has been performing in Beijing, and more than two million refugees, mostly women and children, have now fled to neighbouring countries in Europe.
"That's one of the reasons why we have had such great results at these Games. We won nine medals in one day (earlier in the week), including two podium sweeps," Sushkevych told Reuters at the Zhangjiakou Paralympic Village.
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"This has never happened in our history. At recent World Cups, they could only manage fifth or sixth place. We had the World Championships in January and none of these athletes won medals. War is a great motivation, a powerful motivation."
For a relatively small country that isn't seen as a force at the Olympics, Ukraine has long been a powerhouse in para sports. In Beijing, the contingent has won a remarkable 25 medals, including nine golds, to sit behind only China in the table.
The journey to the podium hasn't been easy: worried about the fate of their families, most athletes have slept little in the last two weeks, desperately hoping for any positive news from back home. read more
"Every morning, they call their mother, father, grandmother, daughter and wait for an answer. And they are so afraid that they may not get a response," said the 67-year-old Sushkevych, who had polio as a child and later competed as a para swimmer.
"This is the reality of our lives now. Every day and night, we are trying to find out if our family is alive or not. It's terribly difficult to be living with the dangers of this war."
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a "special operation" and denies firing on civilians.
The invasion forced the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) to ban athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete in Beijing after earlier permitting them to take part as neutrals. read more
Belarus has been a key staging area for Russian troops.
Sushkevych said he was "shocked" by the IPC's initial decision but added he was delighted that other member associations rallied around them and threatened a boycott if Russia and Belarus were allowed to compete.
"Solidarity is very important and I have big respect for all the countries who asked the IPC leaders to change their mind, all in the course of one night."
Asked if the ban was harsh, Sushkevych added: "They are the representatives of a country that has killed people. The Olympics are all about representation, so you had to cancel their participation."
Some athletes in Ukraine have signed up to defend their homeland, but the paralympians in Beijing believe they can play an equally important role in the fight by winning medals.
Paralympians are hugely popular in Ukraine and their success, unlike in some countries, is often a reason for great celebration.
"When they're shooting in biathlon, they tell me they realise what they can do for their country," said Sushkevych.
Ukraine can notch up more medals in the cross-country skiing events over the weekend and edge towards top spot.
"We know how much our participation means to the Ukrainian people. We are glad we are fighting for them," Sushkevych said.
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