TOKYO – In American sports terms, Ukraine’s Paralympians are a minor marvel, the Slavic equivalent of the Oakland Athletics.
At the Paralympics in Tokyo, which ended on Sunday, the Ukrainians took fifth place in the overall medal ranking with 98, only six fewer than the USA. Each of the four leading countries – China, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States – had more than 220 athletes in Tokyo, while Ukraine brought 139.
“It’s a small country, well above its weight,” said Craig Spence, senior spokesman for the International Paralympic Committee.
Success was not matched by the Ukrainian Olympians, who finished 16th in the overall Tokyo ranking last month. They won one gold medal, four fewer than Maksym Krypak, whose seven swimming medals – five gold, one silver and one bronze – made him the most decorated athlete at the Paralympics in Tokyo.
Ukraine was one of the top six countries in medal counting in nine consecutive Summer and Winter Paralympic Games, despite consistently ranked among the poorest countries in Europe and identified by the United Nations as a difficult home for people with disabilities.
This sporting success has been practically unbroken in recent years, despite the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, which effectively cut off the Paralympics of Ukraine from their high-performance training center on the Black Sea. Technically, Ukraine remained the owner of the center, but Valerii Sushkevich, a longtime MP and president of the nation’s Paralympic Committee, said it was too complicated to use.
In Dnipro, a city in a government-controlled part of eastern Ukraine, a new center with the necessary adaptive equipment remains unfinished.
67-year-old Sushkevich grew up under Soviet rule, used a wheelchair and became a competitive swimmer, despite strong prejudice against public screenings by people with disabilities.
“It wasn’t so good for the image of the Soviet Union,” Sushkevich said through an interpreter, recalling that he was effectively told, “You have to be outside of this society.”
The Soviets pledged to excel at the Olympics, but didn’t send athletes to the Paralympics until 1988, the last cycle before the country’s complete dissolution in 1991.
In 1996, Ukraine entered the Paralympic Games for the first time as an independent country at the Atlanta Games, winning just seven medals, which is Krypak’s total in Tokyo.
But Sushkevich set up a program, Invasport, that would establish and create sports centers for disabled people in each of the two dozen oblasts or administrative districts of Ukraine sport-oriented schools for children.
“Invasport combined a state and a non-state system,” he said, aiming to make people as active as the Paralympists.
But there was a significant incentive to build a sports career. Without this, people with disabilities would have little opportunity to make a living.
“Before the sport, I had practically nothing. Not really practical; I literally had nothing, “Lidiia Solovyova, a two-time Paralympic champion in powerlifting, told the BBC in 2012.” I didn’t have an apartment. I didn’t have a salary. I didn’t have a good pension. But now, thanks to sport, I have all these things. “
Marta Hurtado, a spokeswoman for the UN Human Rights Office, confirmed that people with disabilities in Ukraine generally have very limited prospects.
“There is a worrying high level of institutionalization of people with disabilities in Ukraine rather than offering family and community-based services,” she wrote in an email, adding, “Inclusive education for children with disabilities remains more of a rarity than that Standard. This is the result of a limited infrastructure and a strong negative attitude in society. “
Oksana Boturchuk, a four-time Paralympic runner who won three silver medals in Tokyo, said she became a little better known in Ukraine after this year’s release of Pulse, a film about her life.
“But in my country the Paralympic athletes are not very popular,” she said. “And everyone is surprised to know who I am. They say, ‘Oh, you’re a Paralympic silver medalist?’ “
That summer, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Selenskyj, visited the country’s Paralympic team prior to his trip to Tokyo and apologized for “that in all these years no President has been present in person to attend our Paralympians at both the summer and summer to send to the Winter Games. ”
In the run-up to the 2018 Winter Paralympics, two major changes were made: live broadcasts of events and an increase in bonus money to match what the Olympians received.
Sushkevich said the reward is approximately $ 125,000 for a gold medal, $ 80,000 for silver, and $ 55,000 for bronze. Previously, he said, prices were about $ 40,000 for gold, $ 26,000 for silver, and $ 8,000 for bronze.
This summer’s results, Sushkevich admitted, were disappointing compared to the country’s third place (behind China and the UK) in the 2016 medal count, which included 41 gold medals up from 24 this year. (The International Paralympic Committee officially ranks teams by gold medals, not grand total.)
The return of competitors from Russia, banned in 2016 following revelations about a government-sponsored doping program, guaranteed Ukraine a lower rank this summer. And Ukraine’s smaller delegation rarely includes competitive entries in sports like wheelchair basketball and rugby or goalball, sports in which the United States piles up a lot of hardware.
“A lot of people around me have told us that we had a really good result in 2016 because we were better than the US,” said Maxym Nikolenko, a three-time Paralympic who won gold and silver and bronze medals that year in Tokyo. “I’m sorry,” he added, embarrassed, “but they were really proud of that.”
Maria Varenikova contributed the reporting from Kiev, Ukraine.