Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has done little to dampen the spirit in Sochi as the Winter Paralympics held the Opening Ceremony on Friday. Athletic events begin Saturday and run through March 16
“We put in some hard work to get here,” flagbearer, athlete, and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Jon Lujan said. “We’re hoping we can just focus on our competition.”
Meanwhile, the Crimean military front is just 300 miles away; that’s about the distance from St. Louis to Chicago. The United States, Britain, and Sweden all canceled plans for government delegations in Sochi because of the Ukrainian conflict. The athletes themselves are still participating, though. Even Ukraine’s athletes are staying in Sochi, said Valeriy Sushkevich, president of the National Paralympic Committee of Ukraine. Ukraine has entered 23 athletes for the Sochi Paralympics, but Sushkevich said they will leave if the violence escalates.
Ukrainian athletes chanted “peace to Ukraine” as they apparently walked out of a flag-raising ceremony in Sochi on Thursday night. The team is now under investigation by the International Paralympic Committee for possibly breaching rules banning political protests.
The first official Paralympics in 1960 were part of a growing movement among disabled World War II veterans. Veteran participation remains a tradition. Retired Marine Sgt. Josh Sweeney lost both legs to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2009. He’s an alternate captain for the sledge hockey team in his first Paralympics. After a long recovery, he said, the Paralympics is like “getting a second chance to serve our country.”
Since the late 1980s, the games have expanded to include more people with congenital disabilities rather than just injuries. In that way, the Paralympics call attention to countries that lack the accessible buildings and transportation Americans take for granted. In some countries, like India, which sent only 10 of its 1.3 billion people to the London games, to be born with a disability could mean death. The Soviet Union refused to host the Paralympics along with the Moscow Olympics in 1980, claiming the nation had no disabled people.
U.S. cross-country skier Tatyana McFadden was born in that environment in 1988. Soviet doctors waited a nearly deadly 21 days after McFadden’s birth to operate on her spina bifida. She was an “unwanted disabled child,” her biography says, but her adoption to the U.S. opened new doors for her. She has made a name for herself in the Paralympics, especially in wheelchair racing at the Summer Games. She won a gold medal in London in 2012.
The Moscow Times said the prospect of the games has prompted changes in Russia, as well. Since 2008 and especially 2011, when Russia passed what it calls the Accessible Environment Program, the country has chipped away at some of its barriers. Russia aims to have 45 percent of its public and transportation facilities accessible by 2015.
International support for the Paralympics is growing, too. About 45 countries and 575 athletes are competing, which would be a best for the Winter Games. Five sports are on the program: alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, biathlon, sledge hockey, and wheelchair curling.
Back in the country of her birth, McFadden’s Winter Games debut is, in a way, a testament to that progress. She said Thursday her biological and adoptive mothers have met and will both be there to cheer her on.