OTTAWA – Team Ukraine took home 14 medals from its inaugural participation in the Invictus Games in Toronto. But the athletes, who competed in athletics, power lifting, swimming, archery, cycling and indoor rowing, reached the top of the podium in terms of the support and admiration they received from within and outside the Ukrainian Canadian community.
The lead cheerleader was the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC), which established a committee to host the 28 Ukrainian athletes (15 participants and 13 back-ups), organized opening and closing receptions, and helped raise $100,000 (about $80,000 U.S.) to provide needed assistance to active and former members of Ukraine’s Armed Forces and National Police through the Ukraine Wounded Warriors Fund.
Both Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended the UCC’s September 22 gala reception in Toronto on the eve of the third edition of the games. Maryna Poroshenko, Ukraine’s first lady, was there too, along with Ukrainian and Canadian Cabinet members: Stepan Kubiv (first vice prime minister, and economic development and trade minister), Pavlo Klimkin (foreign affairs) and Arsen Avakov (internal affairs) of Ukraine, and Harjit Sajjan (national defense) and Seamus O’Regan (veterans affairs) of Canada. (Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister for Euro-Integration and Euro-Atlantic Integration Ivanna Klympush-Tsyntsadze attended the UCC’s closing reception on September 30.)
About 800 people paid $200 ($160 U.S.) a ticket to attend the sold-out event marked by important symbolism.
“It was really important for Ukraine to use this opportunity to highlight the fact that it was its first appearance at the Invictus Games and is the only country facing a battle for its sovereignty and territorial integrity by an external aggressor,” explained UCC President Paul Grod.
He said that’s why President Poroshenko, who was over the moon with Team Ukraine’s second-place finish in the medal count, made a point of flying from New York City – where he participated in the opening of the 72nd session of the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Security Council session on peacekeeping in Ukraine – to Toronto to cheer on his country’s military and law-enforcement athletes.
But Prime Minister Trudeau was a go for the UCC opening reception even before it was known that his “very special friend” Mr. Poroshenko would be present.
“When we introduced the idea of the prime minister coming and spending time as part of this welcoming reception at the Invictus Games, there was no hesitation. The Prime Minister’s Office jumped all over it to make it happen,” Mr. Grod explained. “Whether Poroshenko was going to be there or not, Trudeau was already committed to attend.”
Sprinkling some Ukrainian in his remarks at the UCC reception (“Dobriy vechir,” “Slava Ukraini” and “Slava Kanadi”) and joking that “Petro’s going to speak to you in French tonight too” [the president did], the prime minister paid tribute to Ukrainian soldiers in eastern Ukraine who are defending “the values and principles we hold sacred to fight for peace, democracy, equality, justice and liberty.”
Mr. Poroshenko praised his country’s athletes “who inspire all Ukrainians” and, before the competition began, already were “winners.”
“Looking at them, I am convinced that Ukraine will also win its struggle” against Russian aggression, said the president, who acknowledged the close bond between the Canadian and Ukrainian military, particularly through Canada’s Operation UNIFIER mission to train Ukrainian soldiers. Mr. Poroshenko also praised the Ukrainian Canadian community, saying that Team Ukraine’s participation in the Invictus Games “would have been impossible without your help.”
The community’s assistance will continue through the Ukraine Wounded Warriors Fund, a joint initiative by the UCC and the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, which coordinates and delivers assistance projects from Canada to Ukraine, to help wounded Ukrainian soldiers, police officers and veterans.
“Ukraine’s social systems infrastructure is not sufficient to support them, whether it’s helping these wounded warriors struggling with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] or in need of rehabilitation or prosthetics, or providing assistance to their families,” said Mr. Grod. “This is where we can play a major role in helping to support those people who have given so much and Ukraine has so little to help them.”
Established by Britain’s Prince Harry in London in 2014, the Invictus Games is an adaptive sport event for injured, ill and wounded servicemen and servicewomen, as well as veterans.
Canadian wounded warrior and retired master corporal Paul Franklin, who lost both of his legs in a suicide bombing in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in early 2006, said that Ukraine’s presence at the Invictus Games sent a direct message to Russia.
“Ukraine may not be part of NATO, but it’s definitely on the same page as Canada in terms of freedom and democracy,” said MCpl Franklin, who is actively involved with the Canadian Armed Forces’ Soldier On program dedicated to keeping injured current and former members of the Canadian military physically active through such events as the Invictus Games.
He explained that, although Team Ukraine was new to the games, its members were not viewed as “outsiders” among the other some 520 fellow athletes from the 16 other participating countries, which included the United States.
“Ukraine had its space beside us and with us,” MCpl. Franklin said.
Russia wasn’t among the countries represented at the Invictus Games because Prince Harry never extended an invitation, he added. But Ukraine and Georgia, which “have been able to halt Russia in its tracks,” were, said MCpl. Franklin.
“The Russians think they can just walk over these countries that are full of people who will never again live under a dictatorship,” he added.
Mr. Grod commended Prince Harry for giving active and former soldiers “the opportunity to heal” through the games, but in also allowing Ukraine “to tell its story” through its athletes’ participation at the event.
“Ukraine is a country that was invaded and that is defending its territorial integrity,” he said. “Ukraine has never had a separatist movement, never had any kind of civil war. What’s happening in eastern Ukraine is not an internal conflict. It’s engineered by Russia, and it’s the first time that Ukraine has faced a military invasion since the second world war.”