In the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, political risk experts predicted any threat to athletes and spectators would come from the restive Caucasus immediately to the east. As it turns out, violence to the west -- in Ukraine -- has instead seized global headlines.
With the capital, Kiev, in flames and scores of citizens gunned down by security police, the mood of goodwill and peace meant to be fostered by the games has been supplanted by concerns over turmoil in the most populous of Russia’s former Soviet neighbors.
While Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition today signed an agreement on early elections and limits on presidential power, protesters continued to camp out behind their barricades and the city remained on edge.
“The global media’s focus has totally shifted from Sochi to Kiev,” said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. Though Russian President Vladimir Putin had successfully overcome early perceptions of mismanagement, “Now, how can you possibly remove Ukraine from the equation?”
Ukrainian athletes and coaches held a moment of silence and have put black ribbons on their country’s flags at Sochi’s Olympic village, according to the Ukrainian Olympic Committee. The group said committee president Sergey Bubka discussed the events at home with the team’s 43 athletes and that they decided to remain in Sochi.
The country’s athletes and sports fans were cheered this afternoon as Ukraine won its first gold medal of the games, taking the women’s biathlon relay ahead of Russia and Norway.
“We needed this moment,” Bubka told reporters after the team finished 26.4 seconds ahead of the Russians. “We dedicate this victory to the Ukrainian nation.”
Biathlon team member Olena Pidhrushna said that she had received messages from across Ukraine offering support.
“Until the very last moment, even this morning I read my e-mails, saying like, ‘Girls, win for us all, for Ukraine,’” Pidhrushna said after the race. “We are so happy that the people of Ukraine are happy back home and that something good happened for our country.”
On the square in central Kiev that has been the focus of the protests, the mood was muted. Though some in the crowd expressed delight at the news, others remained preoccupied with the situation as some groups oppose the peace agreement.
In Sochi, skier Bohdana Matsotska, who competed in the super combined, withdrew from today’s slalom, according to the Ukrainian team website. She decided not to race out of concern over the violence in Kiev, the team said.
“I share the common view that athletes who are representing Ukraine are promoting the mission to unite our nation at this horrifying time,” Bubka posted on his Twitter account. “The Ukraine Olympic team will continue to participate in Sochi and hopefully raise the spirits of our compatriots back home.”
A Ukrainian committee spokesman didn’t answer repeated calls to his cell phone. Matsotska didn’t respond to a message left on her Facebook page.
Russian and Olympic officials are determined to not let the chaos in Ukraine steer too much attention away from the competition, which wraps up on Sunday. Olympics chief executive officer Dmitry Chernyshenko on yesterday said he is too busy overseeing the games to think about politics in another country.
“All I care about is that the remaining days be as successful as the previous ones,” he said during a brisk walk between meetings at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, site of the hockey games.
Most people are “rightly concentrating on the sport, which is what the Olympics are about,” International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams said at a press briefing. “The games are a great show, in the village particularly, of how people can live together.”
On her Facebook page, Ukrainian snowboarder Annamari Chundak urged opposition leaders to send their supporters home and find a peaceful solution to the strife.
“It would be honest now to go to the stage and say that the authorities will clear out the Maidan in the near term and offer some way out,” she wrote, referring to Independence Square in Kiev, where protesters have been camped out since November. “You can’t hide your head in the sand when you can save thousands of lives.”
Ukrainian officials attempted to put a brave face on the prospects for the Olympic bid of Lviv, about 470 kilometers (290 miles) from Kiev. The city is competing to host against Krakow, Poland; Oslo, Norway; Almaty, Kazakhstan; and Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. The IOC expects to announce the winner in July 2015.
Sergej Gontcharov, CEO of Lviv 2022, acknowledges that the violence in Kiev is damaging his group’s campaign.
“Obviously, the conflict needs to be resolved before we can seriously be considered as hosts,” he told insidethegames.biz, a sports news website.
Spectators, meanwhile, have been trying to concentrate on the athletes even as the barricades in Kiev continue to draw their attention away. Tatyana Pluyko, a 50-year-old from the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk, says she has been riveted by the news reports from Kiev every evening when she returns to her hotel.
“When I see this on TV and even when I talk about it now, I get goose bumps,” she said while visiting the cauldron holding the Olympic flame, which sits at the center of a vast plaza surrounded by the six stadiums for ice events. “But when I come to the Olympic venues, I forget about it.”