Ukraine, Russia Olympic presidents, once teammates, now on opposite sides of war

Vadym Guttsait

KYIV, Ukraine — They fought on the same side and together won Olympic gold, young men from Russia and a newly independent Ukraine, joined for one last medal-winning hurrah on a short-lived post-Soviet Unified Team at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Now, former fencers Vadym Guttsait and Stanislav Pozdnyakov are on opposite sides of the war that Russia is waging on Ukraine. Both have risen to become senior sports administrators, respectively heading the Ukrainian and Russian Olympic committees. The nearly year-old invasion has utterly shredded what was left of their friendship and they’re now fighting each other in a divisive and growing split within the Olympic movement over whether Russia and ally Belarus should be barred from next year’s Paris Games.

Guttsait, who is also Ukraine’s sports minister as well as its Olympic committee president, now has only contempt for his former teammate. Guttsait calls Pozdnyakov “my enemy” and says their friendship began to collapse when Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Moscow’s full-scale invasion, which enters its second year next week, was the last straw. Guttsait blames the Russian Olympic Committee president for making supportive comments of the assault.

“I don’t want to talk to him. I don’t want to know him at all. He is my enemy, who supports this war, who considers it an honor for athletes to take part in the war against Ukrainians, to kill Ukrainians,” Guttsait said. “Therefore, for today and forever, this person does not exist for me.”

Guttsait is threatening a Ukrainian boycott of the Paris Games if Russians and Belarusians are there and he is mobilizing support from other countries, backed by the wartime star power of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Russia and Belarus, on the other hand, are clinging to a lifeline thrown to them by the International Olympic Committee, which says some of their athletes may be able to return to international competition despite the war. The IOC suggests that their athletes who have not actively supported the war could try to qualify and compete as “neutral athletes,” stripped of national team uniforms, flags and anthems. Pozdnyakov has said Russia is preparing as if its athletes are going to Paris.

The IOC first recommended last February that international sports federations ban Russian and Belarusian athletes. The IOC has not changed its stance while also saying since at least September that it is discussing with global Olympic sports leaders how Russian and Belarusian athletes who do not endorse the war could return in the future.

IOC President Thomas Bach, an Olympic champion fencer for Germany in 1976, said in December that the IOC is against “prohibiting athletes from participating in sports only because of their passport.”

In an interview late Tuesday with The Associated Press, Guttsait laid out the process that could lead to a Ukrainian boycott of Paris. The minister said his own personal opinion is that “we need to boycott” if Russians and Belarusians attend. But he added that the decision isn’t his alone to make and said the Ukrainian Olympic Committee will convene an extraordinary meeting and “we will decide together whether we will participate or not.”

“This is a very important question, it is a very serious question and difficult for every athlete, for every coach who prepares all his life to go to the Olympic Games,” he said. “But while our people are dying, women and children are being killed, our cities are being destroyed, we stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people. In my opinion, this is more important than going to the competition. But we need to make this political decision together with our Olympic family.”

Before any decision for a full boycott, Ukrainian athletes could also show opposition by withdrawing from Olympic qualifying competitions that allow Russian and Belarusian entrants. Guttsait cited the example of the European Wrestling Championships in Croatia in April. If Russian and Belarusian athletes compete, Ukrainian wrestlers will either not attend “or they will come and not take part,” Guttsait said.

The minister said support among Russian athletes for the invasion makes their presence at the Paris Olympics unthinkable while the war rages. He also noted that Russian athletes are often enrolled in the country’s armed forces.

Ukrainian athletes, on the other hand, are facing the miseries of war as they try, as best they can, to ready themselves for Paris.

“I really want all people to understand how we prepare, how our athletes live, that our athletes train while cruise missiles are flying, bombs are flying,” Guttsait said. “The Olympic Games are great, they unite the whole world, but not those athletes who support this war and this aggression.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Football takes significant step in Olympic push

Flag Football
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Football took another step toward possible Olympic inclusion with the IOC executive board proposing that the sport’s international federation — the IFAF — be granted full IOC recognition at a meeting in October.

IOC recognition does not equate to eventual Olympic inclusion, but it is a necessary early marker if a sport is to join the Olympics down the line. The IOC gave the IFAF provisional recognition in 2013.

Specific measures are required for IOC recognition, including having an anti-doping policy compliant with the World Anti-Doping Agency and having 50 affiliated national federations from at least three continents. The IFAF has 74 national federations over five continents with almost 4.8 million registered athletes, according to the IOC.

The NFL has helped lead the push for flag football to be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games. Flag football had medal events for men and women at last year’s World Games, a multi-sport competition including Olympic and non-Olympic sports, in Birmingham, Alabama.

Football is one of nine sports that have been reported to be in the running to be proposed by LA 2028 to the IOC to be added for the 2028 Games only. LA 2028 has not announced which, if any sports, it plans to propose.

Under rules instituted before the Tokyo Games, Olympic hosts have successfully proposed to the IOC adding sports solely for their edition of the Games.

For Tokyo, baseball-softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were added. For Paris, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were approved again, and breaking will make its Olympic debut. Those sports were added four years out from the Games.

For 2028, the other sports reportedly in the running for proposal are baseball and softball, breaking, cricket, karate, kickboxing, lacrosse, motorsports and squash.

All of the other eight sports reportedly in the running for 2028 proposal already have a federation with full IOC recognition (if one counts the international motorcycle racing federation for motorsports).

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Helen Maroulis stars in wrestling documentary, with help from Chris Pratt

Helen Maroulis, Chris Pratt

One of the remarkable recent Olympic comeback stories is the subject of a film that will be shown nationwide in theaters for one day only on Thursday.

“Helen | Believe” is a documentary about Helen Maroulis, the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion. It is produced by Religion of Sports, the venture founded by Gotham Chopra, Michael Strahan and Tom Brady. Showing details are here.

After taking gold at the 2016 Rio Games, Maroulis briefly retired in 2019 during a two-year stretch in which she dealt with concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. The film focuses on that period and her successful bid to return and qualify for the Tokyo Games, where she took bronze.

In a poignant moment in the film, Maroulis described her “rock bottom” — being hospitalized for suicidal ideations.

In an interview, Maroulis said she was first approached about the project in 2018, the same year she had her first life-changing concussion that January. A wrestling partner’s mother was connected to director Dylan Mulick.

Maroulis agreed to the film in part to help spread mental health awareness in sports. Later, she cried while watching the 2020 HBO film, “The Weight of Gold,” on the mental health challenges that other Olympians faced, because it resonated with her so much.

“When you’re going through something, it sometimes gives you an anchor of hope to know that someone’s been through it before, and they’ve overcome it,” she said.

Maroulis’ comeback story hit a crossroads at the Olympic trials in April 2021, where the winner of a best-of-three finals series in each weight class made Team USA.

Maroulis won the opening match against Jenna Burkert, but then lost the second match. Statistically, a wrestler who loses the second match in a best-of-three series usually loses the third. But Maroulis pinned Burkert just 22 seconds into the rubber match to clinch the Olympic spot.

Shen then revealed that she tore an MCL two weeks earlier.

“They told me I would have to be in a brace for six weeks,” she said then. “I said, ‘I don’t have that. I have two and a half.’”

Maroulis said she later asked the director what would have happened if she didn’t make the team for Tokyo. She was told the film still have been done.

“He had mentioned this isn’t about a sports story or sports comeback story,” Maroulis said. “This is about a human story. And we’re using wrestling as the vehicle to tell this story of overcoming and healing and rediscovering oneself.”

Maroulis said she was told that, during filming, the project was pitched to the production company of actor Chris Pratt, who wrestled in high school in Washington. Pratt signed on as a producer.

“Wrestling has made an impact on his life, and so he wants to support these kinds of stories,” said Maroulis, who appeared at last month’s Santa Barbara Film Festival with Pratt.

Pratt said he knew about Maroulis before learning about the film, which he said “needed a little help to get it over the finish line,” according to a public relations company promoting the film.

The film also highlights the rest of the six-woman U.S. Olympic wrestling team in Tokyo. Four of the six won a medal, including Tamyra Mensah-Stock‘s gold.

“I was excited to be part of, not just (Maroulis’) incredible story, but also helping to further advance wrestling and, in particular, female wrestling,” Pratt said, according to responses provided by the PR company from submitted questions. “To me, the most compelling part of Helen’s story is the example of what life looks like after a person wins a gold medal. The inevitable comedown, the trauma around her injuries, the PTSD, the drive to continue that is what makes her who she is.”

Maroulis, who now trains in Arizona, hopes to qualify for this year’s world championships and next year’s Olympics.

“I try to treat every Games as my last,” she said. “Now I’m leaning toward being done [after 2024], but never say never.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!