Commentary

What are the Ukrainians fighting for?

Violence, political unrest in Kiev rattle Ukraine's Olympic contingent in Sochi

Updated: February 21, 2014, 6:20 PM ET
By Brett Forrest | Special to ESPN.com

SOCHI, Russia -- There are snipers on the rooftops in Kiev, Ukraine, and on the snow in Sochi. Political unrest in Ukraine has unraveled the threads of civil society in recent days, resulting in the deaths of nearly 100 people, many from targeted shooting. Meanwhile, in Ukraine's final event at the Sochi Olympics, the women's biathlon team took gold in the 4x6-kilometer relay, missing only six shots in all.

Two members of the team, twin sisters Vita and Valj Semerenko, serve as reservist officers in the Security Service of Ukraine, the country's successor agency of the KGB, highlighting the personal connection between the struggle on Kiev's barricades and the competition in Sochi.

What are the Ukrainians fighting for?

The industrial belt of the country's East, as well as Crimea and other pockets on the map, identify with Russia and its established system of inside relationships. The power brokers of the region operate with the same cronyism that exists immediately to the east in Vladimir Putin's Russia, and view political change as a threat to their way of doing business. Meanwhile, the western portion of Ukraine, which has traditionally possessed a fierce nationalist streak, favors a more European system, the rule of law. Kiev, Ukraine's capital and its largest city, straddles the Dnieper River, the geographic divide between the regions. What we have been watching since November, when those who sympathize with the West began gathering on the streets of Kiev, is the manifestation of fundamental ideological difference.

And when the conflict boiled over into deadly violence, it rattled Ukraine's contingent in Sochi.

"I'm shocked by what is happening in my native country, especially because the violence is taking place during the Olympic Games," Sergey Bubka wrote on his blog. Bubka, the great Soviet pole vaulter, is now head of the Ukrainian Olympic Committee. He was once a parliamentary deputy, from the Russian-friendly east of Ukraine, president Viktor Yanukovich's power base. Bubka has urged an end to the violence in Kiev. "I appeal to all parties involved in the events...," Bubka wrote. "I am now in Sochi and I know that our Olympic athletes who fight for the glory of Ukraine fully support me."

Several members of the Ukrainian team are active members of the military, as service is compulsory in Ukraine. A few of them received calls and texts discouraging them from making political statements during the Games, at the risk of their positions and pensions. The Ukrainian team petitioned the IOC for the right to wear black armbands during competition. The IOC rejected the bid, citing its charter, which forbids political statements during the Games. When this happened, Bogdana Matsotska, a Ukrainian alpine skier, pulled out of her final event, Friday's women's slalom.

"It's tough to compete and focus on competition and performance when you get such sad news every 10 minutes," said Sergej Gontcharov, the chief executive of Lviv 2022, Ukraine's bid to host the XXIV Olympic Winter Games, in 2022. A charming city of 730,000 and a UNESCO World Heritage site, Lviv is just 45 miles from the border of Poland, part of the eastern edge of the European Union. It was a host city for UEFA European championships, in 2012. For many in the west, it is the symbol of what they would like the rest of the country to become.

Gontcharov is in Sochi to promote the Lviv bid, although some observers speculate that the negative publicity generated by the Sochi Games may dissuade the IOC from awarding the Olympics to other developing countries anytime soon. However you look at it, the violence that has spread across Ukraine over the past weeks has done the bid no favors.

"No, it's certainly not helping it," Gontcharov said, as stood grabbing a smoke outside Sochi's Iceberg figure skating venue last night. However, the bid on behalf of Lviv, the seat of the anti-Yanukovich camp, exemplifies a rare case of political cooperation in the charged Ukrainian environment. "The city council and regional council in Lviv -- the opposition -- voted unanimously for the bid, even though it was initiated by the central government. That tells you that the country is not truly divided. That's the beauty of sports. Sports are above politics."

[+] Enlarge Vitali Klitschko
Etienne De Malglaive/Getty ImagesVitali Klitschko, an opposition leader and former world champion boxer, has announced his intention to run for president of Ukraine.

But surely never far from them. Former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, perhaps the most recognizable face in Ukraine, announced in the fall that he was running for the presidency, in elections that were expected by mid-2015. Klitschko's political party, UDAR, controls 14 percent of the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada. Since protests broke out on Kiev's streets in November, Klitschko has been right in the middle of it, in personal jeopardy amid the truncheons, bullets and Molotov cocktails. "We will not go anywhere from here," he told a crowd on Kiev's Independence Square, earlier this month. "This is an island of freedom and we will defend it."

When Klitschko announced for the presidency, he retired from boxing, vacated the WBC title, choosing instead to fight on an anti-corruption platform in Ukraine. His brother, Vladimir, the holder of the rest of the heavyweight belts, fights on in the ring. Vladimir spoke excitedly by phone Friday from Hamburg, where he is preparing for his April 26 title fight against Alex Leapai, in Oberhausen, Germany. "I've just received the new agreement in my hand," he said.

Earlier Friday, the foreign ministers of Poland, Germany and France brokered a breakthrough deal between Yanukovich and the opposition. Among the many points that Vladimir read over the phone was the agreement to institute a coalition government in the next 10 days. Yanukovich has called for a presidential election by December. Soon Vitali Klitschko, for the time being relieved that the violence on Kiev's streets may cease, will turn his attention to a campaign.

"I just had a Skype conversation with my brother, from parliament," Vladimir Klitschko said. "He hasn't slept in days, with all the deaths. It's the first time in a long time I've seen him with a smile on his face."

Vitali told his brother that when word of the Ukrainian women's biathlon victory reached the Rada, deputies stood and sang the Ukrainian anthem in the chamber. The anthem is titled, "Ukraine Has Not Yet Died," and today it's a fitting title.

"This is the first step toward freedom and democracy in Ukraine," Vladimir said. "Eventually. The struggle has been way too long and too many people have lost their lives. It's a marathon. There's still a long way to go. But it's exciting. It's great."

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