'We're not best friends': Ukrainian and Russian athletes keep distance

BEIJING, Feb 4 (Reuters) - With Russian troops massed at Ukraine's borders, athletes from the two countries have formed a fragile peace at the Beijing Olympics, helped along by coronavirus restrictions meant to keep competitors apart.

Ukraine has advised its athletes to avoid Russians where possible and instructed them how to behave in case they are provoked. COVID-19 restrictions in Beijing's Olympic bubble have limited but not eliminated interactions between them.

"We're not the best of friends," Ukrainian bobsledder Lidiia Hunko said of her Russian competitors. "We spend time with our own team. We're not in contact with the Russians."

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An athlete's job at the Olympics, she said, was to win medals and proudly represent their country, not score political points.

While she had not heard of any incidents between competitors from the two nations, she said the escalating political tensions had affected Ukrainian Olympians.

"This situation (around Ukraine) affects us because we all have family, we all have friends there," Hunko said. "Of course we treat people as separate individuals, but it still leaves a mark."

'JUST POLITICS'

Ukrainian athletes remain tight-lipped about the situation at home. The country's Olympic Committee has asked reporters not to query Ukrainian competitors about politics, saying it "makes athletes lose the ground under their feet emotionally."

When asked to describe the atmosphere in his home city of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, ice dancer Maksym Nikitin quickly changed the topic to the food served in the Olympic Village.

Figure skater Ivan Shmuratko dodged questions about the mood in Ukraine, saying he was at the Olympics to do his best.

Russian Olympians, who are competing without their flag and national anthem because of doping sanctions, have emphasised that the harsh statements by the two countries' politicians have not seeped into interactions in Beijing.

Camaraderie was visible at a recent short-track speed skating training session where a Russian, Semyon Elistratov, bronze medallist in the men's 1,500m at the 2018 Games, received a push from Ukraine's Oleh Handei to practice for the relay.

"We have friendly relations," Elistratov told RIA news agency. "Oleh always tells me, 'Don't pay attention to that, it's just politics.'"

Russian officials have said they are against the "politicisation" of the Games, opposing the diplomatic boycott by some Western countries.

"If Ukrainian athletes win at the 2022 Games, we will be sincerely happy for them and congratulate them on medals," Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin told TASS news agency.

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Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv; Editing by Leela de Kretser and Jacqueline Wong

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