The Ukrainian Weekly congratulates Ukraine’s 2016 Paralympic Team on its third-place finish at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games! This year, Ukraine was represented by 172 athletes in 15 sports and collected 117 medals (41 gold, 37 silver and 39 bronze). First place was won by China (239 medals), followed by Great Britain in second place (147 medals), and the United States (115 medals) in fourth place.
To better understand the Ukrainian team’s accomplishment, one must examine the 20-year journey that Ukraine’s Paralympic program has undergone since it began competing under the Ukrainian banner at the Summer Paralympic Games in 1996 in Atlanta, Ga. (Previously, Ukrainian Paralympic athletes competed under the Soviet Union in 1988 and under the Unified Team in 1992.)
In 1996, the team was represented by 30 athletes and finished in 44th place with seven medals. In 2000 in Sydney, Ukraine finished in 35th place (37 medals), and then in 2004 in Athens, Ukraine finished in sixth place (90 athletes, 55 medals). In 2008 in Beijing (74 medals) and 2012 in London (84 medals), Ukraine finished in fourth place.
Notably absent this year was the Russian Paralympic team, which was banned for state-sponsored doping. The Kremlin and Russia’s athletes could not help but watch as Ukraine’s athletes were given a chance to shine. This was in contrast to the regular Olympic Games this year, where only the Russian athletics team was banned from competing due to positive doping results. The Kremlin philosophy of “might makes right” was proven wrong once again, as Russia’s athletes (some in professional sports) continue to be investigated and forcibly stripped of medals and titles won while samples test positive for banned substances.
Ukraine’s Paralympic athletes returned this year from Rio to a hero’s welcome with hundreds greeting them upon arrival at Boryspil Airport in Kyiv with flowers, signs and gifts. (Video of their arrival can be viewed via YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GdbfzCmdFzE#t=129.)
This is in contrast to the Soviet legacy of viewing people with physical or mental disabilities as a marginalized group of society. The welcome that these athletes returned to demonstrates the change in attitude that is ongoing in Ukraine, marking Ukraine’s growth as a more inclusive society closely mirroring Western ideals.
Indeed, Valeriy Sushkevych, a national deputy in the Verkhovna Rada and president of the National Paralympic Committee of Ukraine (also known in Ukraine as the National Committee of Sports for the Disabled of Ukraine), who himself is wheelchair-bound, spoke at Boryspil Airport and underscored the role that Paralympians serve in highlighting the needs of the disabled and for equality in society. These Paralympians and their achievements are an example for all of Ukraine, not just the disabled, he said.
Also notable in the Paralympic team’s achievement is how the team was able to overcome the challenges of training and preparing a team while the country is defending itself against Russia-led aggression in the east of Ukraine and Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Ukraine’s success can also be attributed to the global community’s commitment to sanctions against Russia, just as the International Paralympic Committee banned Russia from competing at the Games in Rio.
This year, as was the case in 2012, the bulk of Ukraine’s medals (75 medals – 25 gold, 24 silver, 26 bronze) came from its swimmers. Swimmer Maksym Krypak – among Ukraine’s top multi-medalists and a debutant at the Paralympic Games – won five gold and three silver medals, and Yelyzaveta Mereshko won four gold medals and one bronze in swimming. Ukraine’s athletics division collected the second-highest number of medals at 19 – four gold, eight silver and seven bronze.
Other sports in which Ukraine medaled included canoeing, cycling, seven-a-side soccer (football), judo, powerlifting, rowing, shooting, table tennis and wheelchair fencing. In addition, Ukraine competed admirably in such sports as sitting volleyball, triathlon, archery and goalball.
Ukraine is set to compete at the upcoming 2018 Winter Paralympic Games in Pyeong Chang, South Korea. Historically, Ukraine has performed better during the summer Games than in the winter, and Ukraine will have a chance to shine once again at the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo. Congratulations to the team for its accomplishments in 2016 and best of luck in the future!