As the International Paralympics open in Sochi, it's difficult to focus on sports with events in Ukraine drawing Russia and the West into a political standoff. What do athletes and officials think of the situation?
Every four years the world celebrates triumph over adversity at the International Paralympic Games. Stories of athletes overcoming their disabilities to shine in sports motivate and inspire generations of young people. But this year, the run-up to the Games was overshadowed by the escalating conflict in Ukraine. Ahead of the opening ceremony on March 7, it was unclear if the Ukrainian team would participate. Rumors circulated that the team would boycott the Games as a form of protest against the presence of pro-Russian troops in Crimea. Many Ukrainian athletes watched in horror as Russia mobilized military troops in Crimea in one of the tensest East-West geo-political situations since the end of the Cold War.
Will the Paralympics become a stage for political protest? Will the focus switch away from the athletes and their stories of success and turn into a standoff between Russia and the West? Many government leaders from the 45 participating countries have decided not to attend the Games in Sochi for political reasons.
Athletes not politics need to make headlines
Only hours to go before the athletes entered Fisht Olympic Stadium, the Ukrainian team announced they would stay and participate in the 11th Paralympic Games. Speaking to reporters, Sir Philip Craven, the president of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), said sports would prevail over politics in Sochi.
"The talking point of Sochi 2014 needs to be great sport and great athletes, not global politics," he said appealing to the international community to make sure athletes take center stage and get the headlines they deserve.
DW asked IPC officials, participants and viewers what they thought about the situation in Ukraine, Ukrainins' decision to attend the Games and whether politics would overshadow the athletes and sports.
A demonstration of Ukrainian pride
Valeriy Suskevich, president of Ukrainian Paralympic Committee, was adamant about the importance of his team participating in the Games:
"The Paralympic movement, the highest achievement of mankind, can and should contribute to developing and keeping peace. It is not politics, it is peace for everyone, and I truly hope and pray that peace can be kept. I hope our leaders show some common sense. I am shocked with what is going on. We are staying at these Games in order to be remembered as the state that sent an independent team regardless of the political situation. Should the situation escalate into a military intervention, we will leave the 11th Paralympic Games. We could not possibly stay. But, we need to be good neighbors, good brotherly neighbors. I spoke to a Russian driver yesterday and he said to me, "We are with you, we support you and we will support you - you have been treated unfairly." When I spoke to [Russian] President Vladimir Putin late last night he didn't offer any guarantees. He was polite, and we talked and listened. It was respectful. He said "I've heard what you've said, and I will think about it." The national Paralympics team is our pride. We benefit from participating. We represent a country that is 22 years old, and we are here to demonstrate that we can love everyone."
Darya Kuznetsova, a Ukrainian television journalist with First National Channel, said she was happy Ukrainians would be participating:
"I think it was a good decision for Ukrainian athletes to take part in these Games. Ukraine wants peace and it's only on this platform, this way - by participating in the Games - that we can show the world we want peace. The situation back home - it's hard to say - it's unusual, it's unfair. It's all political games. The Paralympics is not political, so our team has to take part. It's not the "Russian Games", it's the Paralympic and Olympic games. It's very good for us that the German disability commissioner decided not to come and that she is making a political statement. It is nice to know that other countries care about us and that they are doing something."
Keep politics and sports separate
The fact that German government leaders and the country's commissioner for disabilities, Verena Bentele - herself a former Paralympic medalist - would not travel to Sochi for the Games was a disappointment for some.
Dr. Karl Quade, Chef-de-mission for the German Paralympic Team told DW politics and sports needed to stay separate.
"We accept the decision of the disability commissioner, Verena Bentele. It's a pity she cannot come because she is a former athlete herself, she had a career as an athlete and she was going to be included in the Hall of Fame. But, the government made the decision. Politics and sports should be kept separate. When you look at past Olympic events like the 1980 and 1984 Games - boycotts punish the participants, not the governments. We regret the situation in Ukraine - as we do in many other countries - where there is a fight for power."
Georg Kreiter, German alpine skiing Paralympian and a member of the German team said despite the underlying political tension, he and his team members had not had any trouble. "The Paralympics are about the athletes who are competing in the races. It's about sports, not about making a political statement."
Time to focus on inspiring stories
Craig Spence, International Paralympic Committee Director of Media and Communications, told DW his organization was relieved Ukraine would participate and is closely monitoring the situation. For the IPC, the priority is making sure the Games run smoothly. He said he hopes politics don't get in the way, but the decision for Germany not to send its commissioner indicates that the conflict in Ukraine will still overshadow the Games.
"We're bitterly disappointed for Verena Bentele, because she was to be inducted into the Paralympic Hall of Fame on Saturday (08.03.2014). It's a real shame that she can't come and receive that honor because politics is getting in the way of sport. Verena is a proud Paralympian, she is one of the best Nordic skiers of all time. The situation in Ukraine certainly has overshadowed the Games because the focus has been on whether Ukraine would or would not compete. We would much prefer people to focus on the sports - a decision has now been taken, so fingers crossed as soon as the sport starts on Saturday morning the story will be the sport and the great athletes we have here who can inspire and excite the world."