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Canmore athletes speak about competing in the Olympics amidst the Russia-Ukraine conflict

Some Alberta Olympic share their thoughts or opinions on what it's like competing amid a world conflict.
20211207 Para Nordic 0416
Vladimir Udalstov of Russia is congratulated by Brian McKeever of Canada after the men's sprint classic, visually impaired race final at the 2021 World Para Nordic Skiing World Cup at the Canmore Nordic Centre in Dec. 2021. RMO FILE PHOTO

BOW VALLEY – It's been more than a month since troops from Russia and Belarus grabbed Ukraine by the neck and shook up the digitally-connected globe.

The destructive and deadly assault has been condemned by world leaders, penalizing Russia with economical, social, and even sporting consequences being taken against the attackers. Sports organizations acted quickly to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from major competitions such as the International Paralympics Committee, International Biathlon Union, and International Ski Federation (FIS). Planned sporting events in those countries have been cancelled or relocated.

Caught up in it all, many athletes, including those from the Bow Valley, were overseas in Europe and China as the conflict raged.

Throughout March, the Outlook asked some local athletes if they wanted to share thoughts or opinions on the bleak international situation, the people and friends involved, or what it's like competing amid a world conflict.

Natalie Wilkie, seven-time Paralympic medallist

“Obviously having this conflict right before the Paralympic Games kicked off was really unfortunate timing and I know it affected a lot of athletes – not just those directly involved. Definitely, tension was high heading into the Paralympic Games. Honestly, I felt really bad for the Russian athletes who were not allowed to compete. I know their country was doing horrible things, but at the same time politics and sport shouldn’t mix and these athletes had just worked four years of their life to compete at the biggest event and not being allowed to compete was a pretty big blow for them, so I felt pretty bad about that, but tension was high in the village. It was also a bit of a relief that they weren’t there, but again, kind of disappointing.

"I’m also just really happy to see how Ukraine did at the Paralympics. They’ve always been super strong competitors and I feel up until now I always just viewed them as rivals, as competitors, and just seeing the emotion and the joy and the amazing performances that they put forth, just really hit me hard and the athletes in my category were always some of the first people to come over and say congratulations and give me a high-five and give me a hug, a smile, and I’m just amazed at everything they’ve been through and the way they’ve been able to pull through it. I couldn’t be happier for how well they did at the Paralympics.”

Mark Arendz, 12-time Paralympic medallist

"Just the strength that they (Ukrainian Paralympians) showed to compete and they competed quite well. That’s a fantastic example of what it means to be athletes in the toughest of circumstances. They came and competed and did quite well and performed. I was extremely happy to share the podium a couple of times with a good friend of mine, Grygorii Vovchynskyi, and others as well. I think it was very special to be there and be able to compete with them and also support them the best we could."

Brittany Hudak, three-time Paralympic medallist

“It’s 2022 and why are some of these issues still prevalent? Like, why does this continue to still happen? Another thing we found interesting was that once the Olympics were over then Russia invaded and it’s like why didn’t they wait until after the Paralympics? I have the utmost respect for my Ukraine competitors. The women’s team is so strong in our field. They’ve been our main competitors since day one; the competitors that make us better as athletes and competitors we look up to. We were talking on our Canadian team about how we just really appreciated racing against them and we feel it from them as well.

"It was honestly just so nice across the finish line and see them do well and they found themselves on the podium frequently in Beijing. It’s sad when you’re not the one on the podium, but we just have that mutual respect with the competitors. They respect us when we beat them and we respect them when they beat us and it’s just so hard to know what they were going through and they’re still there and still racing and the turmoil going on for them back home is so unfortunate. After all these years. it sounds so cliché to say, but can we actually have world peace? Like, why is war still going on, why does this have to be an issue in today’s society? It just makes me really happy they were at the Games and competed and pulled off some outstanding performances. And just be the great individuals we know them to be and hopefully everything is safe for some of them.”

Brian McKeever, 20-time Paralympic medallist

"It’s hard. It's hard for everybody. I think the separation between sport and politics is a difficult one. I think, on one hand, it’s easy to paint on a broad brush and lump people together, but then there’s a lot of individuals, and I can tell you, [until you] can sit down and talk to somebody one-on-one and get real opinions and open and honest conversation, you don’t know what they’re thinking. It’s tough to separate a nation's foreign policy from the potential views of the people who live there – it’s not always the same. We saw it in Canada, there’s a protest going on all over about mask mandates and freedom and there could easily be counter protests going the other way, so everyone’s got an opinion. On one hand, a group of people decides the government is an issue and on the other hand people think they’re doing a good job, so separating that out is not easy, but I got friends on all the teams, we’ve got 20-year relationships with some people, and the reality of what Ukraine is going through right now is unbelievably sad. And talking to the athletes, what they’re doing here from Ukraine, is impressive. The medals they’ve won, the performances some have been able to muster in the face of just crushing, crushing situation.

"One of my buddies here is a guide and we were chatting and he talked with his girlfriend a day ago and she said maybe there’s a 50/50 chance of getting out of their city. He said today she is safe, but yesterday she was not. When you hear stories like that, sport kind of takes a back seat. It’s hard to separate the feelings of people involved and the fact we’re here trying to participate in a sporting event, it’s a bit of an existential crisis to be here and try to be excited about racing when we have friends suffering and people are dying. Nobodies winning here.”

Jeff Read, alpine national team

"We’re in a country (Norway) that borders Russia right now (earlier in March); that makes you a little nervous, but you still feel safe, of course. It was cool to see the impacts; all the little kids at the race had blue and yellow on their cheeks and they had a little Ukraine flag ceremony before every race and the winners all went up with Ukraine armbands on. The support here is huge, and I think that means a lot and, of course, what the Paralympic athletes are having to go through right now, it’s a lot. The Russians (and Belarusians) getting sent home, that’s pretty crazy, but it’s something that it’s hard to sort of wrap your head around that your home could be getting invaded by your neighbours. In the western world, we don’t even think about that. Just thoughts and prayers to all the families and athletes over in Ukraine who aren’t able to live their life as usual and wishing all the best health and wellness for everybody and just want this to end and get back to a normal life and hopefully that can happen sooner than later because we all want to celebrate sport together."

Christian Gow, biathlon national team

“It’s a crazy situation. It was really bizarre, because we actually came home right after the Olympics, and then like two days later, Russia declared war. Then obviously there’s this unknown of OK, are we going to race? I thought maybe the season would be over or whatever, but then business kind of continued on as usual from that standpoint. You could tell it was very much on everyone’s minds. Athletes, organizers, everyone. It was definitely a more, like, sombre kind of affair, especially that first week in Finland. I think everyone has a huge amount of outpour and support for the Ukrainian people and I don’t think anyone is supporting what is happening there.”

Xavier McKeever, cross-country ski national team

"My thoughts are with Ukraine. That is such a tough situation to be in and I can’t imagine what it would be like to live there right now, and it’s pretty scary, I find. In terms of the whole competition thing, it’s interesting because Russia is actually banned from racing in world cups currently, so they’re not here. FIS set out a ban on Russian athletes in order to put pressure on Russia in that sense. It's interesting to see all these federations, like, sports federations put sanctions against Russia to not allow them to compete and it’s a really interesting environment because, I mean, for here, it seems everything is operating as normal on the circuit. My first weekend, everything is operating as normal, except Russia is not competing."

Jordan Small

About the Author: Jordan Small

An award-winning reporter, Jordan Small has covered sports, the arts, and news in the Bow Valley since 2014. Originally from Barrie, Ont., Jordan has lived in Alberta since 2013.
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