Ukraine athletes’ path to 2024 Paris Olympics clouded by war, anger

European Aquatics Championships Rome 2022: Day Eight

Ukrainian diver Stanislav Oliferchyk proudly bears the name of his late grandfather, who died in brutalized Mariupol. Russia’s troops turned the Ukrainian port city into a killing zone in the process of capturing it. The elder Stanislav could no longer get the cancer treatment he needed in the ruins, his grandson says. He was 74 when he died last October.

Another victim of the months-long Russian siege of Mariupol was its gleaming aquatic center. Oliferchyk had planned to use the refurbished sports complex as his training base for the 2024 Paris Olympics. But it was bombed the same day last March as the city’s drama theater. The theater airstrike was the single deadliest known attack against civilians to date in the year-old Russian invasion. An Associated Press investigation determined that close to 600 people died.

So it takes no leap of the imagination to understand why Mariupol-born Oliferchyk is horrified by the idea that he and other war-traumatized Ukrainian athletes might have to put their anger and consciences aside and compete against counterparts from Russia and ally Belarus at next year’s Olympics.

“I’m angry most of the time. I just can’t stand it anymore when shelling happens,” said the 26-year-old Oliferchyk, a European champion in mixed synchronized springboard diving in 2019. “I want Russia to let us live in peace and stay away from us.”

Defying fury from Ukraine and misgivings from other nations, the International Olympic Committee is exploring whether to allow Russians and Belarusians back into international sports and the Paris Games as neutral athletes. The IOC says it is mission-bound to promote unity and peace — particularly when war is raging. It also cites United Nations human rights experts who argue, on non-discrimination grounds, that athletes and sports judges from Russia and Belarus shouldn’t be banned simply for the passports they hold.

For Ukrainian athletes setting their sights on Paris, the possibility of sharing Olympic pools, fields and arenas with Russian and Belarusian competitors is so repellent that some say they’d not go if it happens.

Sisters Maryna and Vladyslava Aleksiiva — who won bronze in artistic swimming’s team competition at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 — are among those who say they’d have to boycott.

“We must,” Maryna said during an Associated Press interview at their training pool in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

Russia is the giant of their sport, previously called synchronized swimming, having won all the gold medals at the past six Olympics.

Completing each other’s sentences, the Ukrainian twins added: “Our moral feelings don’t allow us to stand near … these people.”

Oliferchyk worries that enmity could spill over if Ukrainians encounter Russians and Belarusians in Paris — a likely scenario given that Olympians will be housed and dine together in accommodation overlooking the River Seine in the city’s northern suburbs.

“Anything can happen, even a fight,” Oliferchyk said. “There simply cannot be any handshakes between us.”

Having to train in the midst of war also puts Ukraine’s Olympic hopefuls at a disadvantage. Russian strikes have destroyed training venues. Air raids disrupt training sessions. Athletes have lost family members and friends, or are consumed by worries that they will. Because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also closed the country’s airspace, traveling to international competitions has become an arduous odyssey — often of long train rides to neighboring Poland, for onward flights from there.

“Our athletes train while cruise missiles are flying, bombs are flying,” Ukrainian Sports Minister Vadym Guttsait said in an AP interview.

He recalled a meeting he took part in between IOC president Thomas Bach and Ukrainian cyclists given refuge in Swizterland.

“Bach asked one of the cyclists how she was doing,” the minister recounted. “She started crying. He asked why. She said that day they (Russian forces) attacked her city, where her parents were, and she was very nervous.”

“This is how every athlete feels about what is happening in Ukraine,” the minister said.

Ukraine’s artistic swim team, including the Aleksiiva sisters, used to train in the Lokomotiv sports center in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city. A Russian strike with powerful S-300 missiles wrecked the complex in September, the region’s governor, Oleh Syniehubov, said at the time. He posted photos showing a giant crater and severe damage to the exterior.

Maryna Aleksiiva said they used to think of the sports center as “our second home.” Their substitute pool in Kyiv doesn’t have the same broad depth of water, making it less suitable for practicing their underwater acrobatics, the sisters said. On a recent morning when they spoke to the AP, air raid sirens interrupted their training and they had to get out of the pool and take refuge in a bomb shelter until the all-clear sounded.

The power also flickered briefly off at times. Russia has been systematically bombarding Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure for months. When attacks shut off the pool’s heating, the water gets so cold that the sisters train in full-body wetsuits — far from ideal for their elegant sport.

“It’s hard to move,” Vladyslava said.

The terrors of war also take a mental toll.

“Every day we read the news — explosion, explosion, air alert,” Maryna said. “We feel so nervous about our relatives.”

Oliferchyk said he cannot imagine a handshake between Ukrainian and Russian athletes for “the next 50, 100 years.”

The Neptune arena in Mariupol where he wanted to train for Paris was wrecked by a Russian strike last March 16. As with Mariupol’s drama theater also destroyed that day, civilians were sheltering at the sports complex from bombardments. They included pregnant women who moved there after a Russian strike the previous week devastated a city maternity hospital. Video posted on Facebook by the region’s governor showed the Neptune’s shattered front and a gaping hole in its roof.

The IOC’s possible pathway out of sports exile for Russians and Belarusians would see them compete as “neutral athletes,” without national flags, colors or anthems.

That idea is a non-starter for Ukraine’s sports minister and athletes who resent that would-be Olympians from Russia and Belarus aren’t taking a stand against the invasion.

“They just do nothing and say nothing. And precisely because of their silence and inaction, all this horror is happening,” Oliferchyk said. “A neutral flag is not an option. It is not possible.”

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Ilia Malinin eyed new heights at figure skating worlds, but a jump to gold requires more


At 18 years old, Ilia Malinin already has reached immortality in figure skating for technical achievement, being the first to land a quadruple Axel jump in competition.

The self-styled “Quadg0d” already has shown the chutzpah (or hubris?) to go for the most technically difficult free skate program ever attempted at the world championships, including that quad Axel, the hardest jump anyone has tried.

It helped bring U.S. champion Malinin the world bronze medal Saturday in Saitama, Japan, where he made more history as the first to land the quad Axel at worlds.

But it already had him thinking that the way to reach the tops of both the worlds and Olympus might be to acknowledge his mortal limits.

Yes, if Malinin (288.44 points) had cleanly landed all six quads he did instead of going clean on just three of the six, it would have closed or even overcome the gap between him and repeat champion Shoma Uno of Japan (301.14) and surprise silver medalist Cha Jun-Hwan (296.03), the first South Korean man to win a world medal.

That’s a big if, as no one ever has done six clean quads in a free skate.

And the energy needed for those quads, physical and mental, hurts Malinin’s chances of closing another big gap with the world leaders: the difference in their “artistic” marks, known as component scores.

Malinin’s technical scores led the field in both the short program and free skate. But his component scores were lower than at last year’s worlds, when he finished ninth, and they ranked 10th in the short program and 11th in the free this time. Uno had an 18.44-point overall advantage over Malinin in PCS, Cha a 13.47 advantage.

FIGURE SKATING WORLDS: Chock, Bates, and a long road to gold | Results

As usual in figure skating, some of the PCS difference owes to the idea of paying your dues. After all, at his first world championships, eventual Olympic champion Nathan Chen had PCS scores only slightly better than Malinin’s, and Chen’s numbers improved substantially by the next season.

But credit Malinin for quickly grasping the reality that his current skating has a lot of rough edges on the performance side.

“I’ve noticed that it’s really hard to go for a lot of risks,” he said in answer to a press conference question about what he had learned from this competition. “Sometimes going for the risks you get really good rewards, but I think that maybe sometimes it’s OK to lower the risks and go for a lot cleaner skate. I think it will be beneficial next season to lower the standards a bit.”

So could it be “been-there, done-that” with the quad Axel? (and the talk of quints and quad-quad combinations?)

Saturday’s was his fourth clean quad Axel in seven attempts this season, but it got substantially the lowest grade of execution (0.36) of the four with positive marks. It was his opening jump in the four-minute free, and, after a stopped-in-your tracks landing, his next two quads, flip and Lutz, were both badly flawed.

And there were still some three minutes to go.

Malinin did not directly answer about letting the quad Axel go now that he has definitively proved he can do it. What he did say could be seen as hinting at it.

“With the whole components factor … it’s probably because you know, after doing a lot of these jumps, (which) are difficult jumps, it’s really hard to try to perform for the audience,” he said.

“Even though some people might enjoy jumping, and it’s one of the things I enjoy, but I also like to perform to the audience. So I think next season, I would really want to focus on this performing side.”

Chen had told me essentially the same thing for a 2017 Ice Network story (reposted last year by about his several years of ballet training. He regretted not being able to show that training more because of the program-consuming athletic demands that come with being an elite figure skater.

“When I watch my skating when I was younger, I definitely see all this balletic movement and this artistry come through,” Chen said then. “When I watch my artistry now, it’s like, ‘Yes, it’s still there,’ but at the same time, I’m so focused on the jumps, it takes away from it.”

The artistry can still be developed and displayed, as Chen showed and as prolific and proficient quad jumpers like Uno and the now retired two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan have proved.

For another perspective on how hard it is to combine both, look at the difficulty it posed for the consummate performer, Jason Brown, who had the highest PCS scores while finishing a strong fifth (280.84).

Since Brown dropped his Sisyphean attempts to do a clean quad after 26 tries (20 in a free skate), the last at the 2022 U.S. Championships, he has received the two highest international free skate scores of his career, at the 2022 Olympics and this world meet.

It meant Brown’s coming to terms with his limitations and the fact that in the sport’s current iteration, his lack of quads gives him little chance of winning a global championship medal. What he did instead was give people the chance to see the beauty of his blade work, his striking movement, his expressiveness.

He has, at 28, become an audience favorite more than ever. And the judges Saturday gave Brown six maximum PCS scores (10.0.)

“I’m so happy about today’s performance,” Brown told media in the mixed zone. “I did my best to go out there and skate my skate. And that’s what I did.”

The quadg0d is realizing that he, too, must accept limitations if he wants to achieve his goals. Ilia Malinin can’t simply jump his way onto the highest steps of the most prized podiums.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to

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Shoma Uno repeats as world figure skating champion; Ilia Malinin tries 6 quads for bronze


Japan’s Shoma Uno repeated as world figure skating champion, performing the total package of jumps and artistry immediately after 18-year-old American Ilia Malinin attempted a record-tying six quadruple jumps in his free skate to earn the bronze medal.

Uno, 25 and the leader after Thursday’s short program, prevailed with five quad attempts (one under-rotated) in Saturday’s free skate.

He finished, fell backward and lay on home ice in Saitama, soaking in a standing ovation amid a sea of Japanese flags. Japan won three of the four gold medals this week, and Uno capped it off with guts coming off a reported ankle injury.

He is the face of Japanese men’s skating after two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu retired in July and Olympic silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama missed most of this season with leg and ankle injuries.

“There were many shaky jumps today, but I’m happy I was able to get a good result despite not being in a good condition these past two weeks,” Uno said, according to the International Skating Union (ISU). “I know I caused a lot of concerns to everyone around me, but I was able to pay them back and show my gratitude with my performance today.”

Silver medalist Cha Jun-Hwan became the first South Korean man to win a world championships medal. Cha, a 21-year-old who was fifth at the Olympics, had to change out broken skate boots before traveling to Japan, one year after withdrawing from worlds after a 17th-place short program, citing a broken skate boot.


Malinin, ninth in his senior worlds debut last year, planned the most difficult program of jumps in figure skating history — six quads, including a quad Axel. Malinin is the only person to land a quad Axel in competition and did so again Saturday. He still finished 12.7 points behind Uno and 7.59 behind Cha.

Malinin had the top technical score (jumps, spins, step sequences) in both programs, despite an under-rotation and two other negatively graded jumps among his seven jumping passes in the free skate.

His nemesis was the artistic score, placing 10th and 11th in that category in the two programs (18.44 points behind Uno). Unsurprising for the only teen in the top 13, who is still working on that facet of his skating, much like a young Nathan Chen several years ago.

“After doing a lot of these jumps — hard, difficult jumps — it’s really hard to try to perform for the audience,” said Malinin, who entered worlds ranked second in the field by best score this season behind Uno.

Chen, who is unlikely to compete again after winning last year’s Olympics, remains the lone skater to land six fully rotated quads in one program (though not all clean). Malinin became the youngest U.S. male singles skater to win a world medal since Scott Allen in 1965. He was proud of his performance, upping the ante after previously trying five quads in free skates this season, but afterward weighed whether the risk was worth it.

“Sometimes going for the risk, you get really good rewards, but I think that maybe sometimes it’s OK to lower the risks and try not to take as much risk and go for a lot cleaner skate,” he said. “I think that’ll be beneficial to do next season is to lower the standards a bit.”

Malinin was followed by Frenchman Kévin Aymoz, who before the pandemic was the world’s third-ranked skater behind Chen and Yuzuru Hanyu, then placed ninth, 11th and 12th at the last three global championships.

Jason Brown, a two-time U.S. Olympian, was fifth in his first international competition since last year’s Olympics. He was the lone man in the top 15 to not attempt a quad, a testament to his incredible artistic skills for which he received the most points between the two programs.

“I didn’t think at the beginning of the year that I even would be competing this year, so I’m really touched to be here,” the 28-year-old said, according to the ISU. “I still want to keep going [competing] a little longer, but we’ll see. I won’t do promises.”

Earlier Saturday, Madison Chock and Evan Bates became the oldest couple to win an ice dance world title and the second set of Americans to do so. More on that here.

World championships highlights air Saturday from 8-10 p.m. ET on NBC, and the NBC Sports app.

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