Ukraine team quit threat remains

Blackpool Citizen: Valeriy Suskevich warned that any escalation in the tension would result in his athletes leaving Sochi (AP) Valeriy Suskevich warned that any escalation in the tension would result in his athletes leaving Sochi (AP)

Ukraine's Paralympic Committee president delivered a powerful plea for peace to Vladimir Putin as he announced his team would compete in the Sochi Games.

But Valeriy Suskevich, who had a personal meeting with the Russian President on Thursday night, warned that any escalation in the tension between the two nations would result in his athletes leaving Sochi.

The build-up to the Winter Paralympics, which got under way with the opening ceremony on Friday night, has been dominated by the growing crisis over Crimea.

Suskevich gave a passionate speech to a packed news conference on Friday in which he outlined the team's reasons for staying and the fears he still had.

Suskevich, who said he was close to an "emotional breakdown" because of the strain he and his team were under, said the decision to stay had been made collectively by the entire squad, was without political influence and was supported by the Ukrainian people.

"We are staying at the Paralympic Games," he said.

"The Ukraine team have a colossal desire to bring peace - peace to their country, peace to Europe, peace to the world.

"I really hope that we can keep peace during the Paralympic Games.

"This is the minimum I ask and hope for, to keep peace and to take steps to achieving detente in the conflict, to prevent any steps leading to war."

Suskevich, who has been a senior politician in Ukraine for 15 years, met with Putin for half an hour.

He said the meeting was "calm", "polite" and "respectful" and it was "extremely important" Putin agreed to listen.

He said he had not received any "guarantees", but that Putin told him he would "think about" his points.

"I could have talked at length to the president of Russia about Crimea," Suskevich said.

"I could have talked a lot about conflict, I didn't have time. I realise there is exclusivity in meeting the president of Russia.

"I reiterated for Mr Putin, emphasising one request, that during the Paralympic Games we would have peace."

And Suskevich emphasised that any escalation of military conflict would result in the team leaving Sochi.

"I declare should this happen we will leave the Games," he added. "We cannot possibly stay here in this case.

"This is what we are afraid of. This is what we are opposing and we do not want to take place. I hope my message has been heard, I hope I have been heard by the president of Russia."

A sombre-looking Mykhaylo Tkachenko, the flag bearer, was the only Ukrainian athlete to parade at the opening ceremony in front of the watching Putin.

He received huge cheers from around the Fisht Stadium, louder than those reserved for any country bar, of course, Russia.

But the contrast between the ceremony's theme of bringing people together and the political backdrop to the Games was impossible to ignore.

It is only possible to guess what Suskevich would have made of the huge ship, with the word 'Mir', the Russian world for peace, emblazened on the hull, which glided across stadium as part of the ceremony's finale.

Ukraine had on Thursday appeared on the brink of pulling out of the Games, with Suskevich giving a series of emotionally-charged interviews following his team's welcome ceremony, in which he laid bare the toll the crisis in his country was having on his team, saying they were "very nervous" and "very afraid".

He was joined on Friday by one of those athletes, 25-year-old biathlete Grygorii Vovchynskyi, apparently the only competitor on the team who felt emotionally able to speak on the subject.

Working hard to compose himself, he said: "You ask me if we are ready to compete? Yes, with the strongest desire.

"We are ready to compete, ready to fight for Ukraine, ready to demonstrate we are a strong and free, independent people. We know how to love life, love sport and love fair competition.

The whole Ukraine team had chanted "peace for Ukraine" as they walked back to their accommodation after Thursday's welcome ceremony in the Alpine Village.

International Paralympic Committee president Sir Philip Craven welcomed Ukraine's decision to stay in Sochi.

He said: "We want sport to prevail and a full complement of teams to compete in what we are confident will be a fantastic Paralympic Winter Games.

"The talking point of Sochi 2014 needs to be great sport and great athletes, not global politics."

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