Russian invasion looms over start of Winter Paralympics

Ukranian delegation send one athlete to opening ceremony in protest

Flag bearer Mykailo Tkachenko of Ukraine enters the arena during the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games at Fisht Olympic Stadium on March 7, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. The rest of the Ukraine team refused to enter the arena as a protest against the political tension between Ukraine and Russia. Tom Pennington / Getty Images
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ROSA KHUTOR, Russia // Paralympians set out to turn the spotlight on to sport as competition began in the Winter Paralympics on Saturday, following an opening ceremony overshadowed by Russia's intervention in Crimea.

Russian president Vladimir Putin opened the Games on Friday night in Sochi, which lies just south-east across the Black Sea from Ukraine’s peninsula of Crimea, which has been seized by pro-Moscow forces.

Only one Ukrainian competitor, 37-year-old skier and biathlete Mykhailo Tkachenko, took part in the opening ceremony in a symbolic protest against Russia's incursion into Crimea.

“It was a team decision to have one person in the parade. We had a discussion and he said he wanted to do it,” said Oleksandr Onischenko, a translator with the Ukrainian team.

“Today I want to talk about sport, about the sports aspect. The team is here to fight for the medals and for a great result. It’s not about beating the Russians specifically.”

Russia, which is one of the world’s strongest nations in paralympic winter sports and has high hopes of heading the medals table, started the Games by taking four out of the five golds on offer in the first day’s biathlon races.

The first Ukrainian medallist of the Paralympics dedicated her achievement to “an independent Ukraine” and appealed for peace.

Olena Iurkovska claimed bronze in the first biathlon event – the women’s six-kilometre sitting.

After finishing behind Svetlana Konovalova of Russia, Iurkovska said: “I devote my first medal in Sochi to an independent Ukraine. Every time I race, it will be for Ukrainian independence and peace in my country.”

Medals in the Alpine events were more evenly spread, with Japan’s Akira Kano taking gold in the men’s sitting downhill and other golds going to athletes from nations ranging from Slovakia to Spain.

Meanwhile, the initial match-ups in the ice sledge hockey and the wheelchair curling also began.

Two weeks after the Winter Olympic Games wrapped up in Sochi, there was still plenty of snow on the tracks, even if the sides of the hills were covered with grass and the sound of birdsong gave an atmosphere of spring.

Russian fans in the stands to watch the opening biathlon races were happy to yell in support for both the Russian and the Ukrainian teams.

“I worry so much for Ukraine. Yesterday when just one athlete came through the arena during the parade, I cried,” said Natalia Kazimirova, a Russian fan from Sochi with a Russian flag painted on her face.

“I am cheering for both teams, Russia and Ukraine. Politics doesn’t matter for me.”

Some western countries, including the United States, Great Britain and Germany, have not sent government delegations to the Games in protest at Russia’s action in Crimea.

Putin had said that he hoped the Paralympic spirit would help “cool the tensions” surrounding Russia’s policy on Ukraine, which has already caused the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War ended.

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