The upcoming European Games in Poland will be a big deal for Ukrainian athletes as it gives them the chance to show the world “how resilient and strong they are”, Spyros Capralos, the president of the European Olympic Committees, has told AFP.
The Ukrainian delegation could number up to 200 at the Games, which run from June 21 to July 2 in Krakow and 10 other towns.
The Ukrainians will be among over 7,000 athletes from 48 countries and will vie with their rivals to qualify for next year’s Paris Olympics as 18 of the 26 sports offer either direct or indirect qualification for the quadrennial sporting extravanganza.
The European Games though will be without Russian and Belarusian athletes who were, Capralos said, barred “some time ago” due to the invasion of Ukraine.
The International Olympic Committee’s recommendation last week that Russian and Belarusian athletes should be allowed to return to global sporting events as individual neutrals -- allowing them to at least qualify for the Paris Olympics next year -- came too late to allow them to be integrated into the European Games.
Polish President Andrzej Duda took a swipe at the IOC’s move when he attended the lighting of the flame for the Games in Rome on Monday.
“As the host of the European Games I will be able to look in the eye of (Ukrainian) President Volodymyr Zelensky and tell him: ‘Volodymyr, these Games are going to be the Games of peace and the Games of calm with no pretence, with no imitation that everything is all right.’”
Ukrainian athletes have been united in their anger at the IOC’s stance, with the thought of encountering Russian opponents at the Paris Olympics playing on their minds.
Kyiv has threatened to boycott the Olympics if Russian and Belarusian competitors are allowed to compete, even as neutrals.
Capralos -- who is an IOC member -- thinks the European Games represent a great opportunity for the Ukrainians to shine.
“It is a big deal for the Ukrainians,” the Greek told AFP in a phone interview.
“It is a chance for them to show the outside world of its existence, how resilient and strong they are and to raise the Ukrainian flag to the top of the podium.
“It gives the athletes the possibility to qualify for Paris and will bring pride to the Ukrainian population which is suffering so much due to the war.”
The Ukrainians will seek to improve on their third place in the medals table at the last European Games in 2019 when they won 52 medals, including 16 golds.
“They will have a very strong team,” said Capralos.
“I am pleased that this will partly be to do with the solidarity programme we have in Europe among the NOCs providing financial help, training and assistance to those athletes who live outside Ukraine.”
The Ukrainians can also expect vociferous support as millions of people -- mostly women and children -- have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion and more than a million of them are now living in Poland, according to official figures.
“The Polish authorities have been working on ticketing programmes for the refugees,” he said.
“The stands will be full of Ukrainian, Polish and other European nationalities who will give the team a standing ovation when they enter the stadium for the opening ceremony.”
This will be the third European Games -- the first was in Baku in 2015 -- and Capralos says the Polish hosts have cut their cloth in line with the times.
“These Games come at a very difficult time after the pandemic and with the war happening in Ukraine, with nine million refugees fleeing to Europe,” said Capralos.
“It will still be the biggest sporting event taking place in Europe since Covid with 7,000 athletes competing.
“It will be spread across 11 towns and cities from Krakow to the Tatra Mountains.
“Rather than spend money on unnecessary facilities we agreed they should focus on the legacy, like roadworks, and invest in community sports facilities which will provide for a better future for the people’s lives there.”
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