SOCHI, Russia: Russia opens its first ever Winter Paralympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Friday, an opportunity for people with disabilities to triumph but which the crisis in Ukraine threatens to derail.
Amid a chill reminiscent of the Cold War, athletes continued to train ahead of the opening ceremony, which is scheduled for 8:14 pm (1614 GMT), and raised their national flags in the Olympic village at the welcoming ceremony on Thursday (Friday in Manila).
Among them were 31 Ukrainians, yet to announce their final decision on whether they plan to compete or will pack their bags and go home in protest of the host country’s intervention in Crimea across the Black Sea from Sochi.
The team, clad in the yellow and blue national colors, sang the anthem as their flag was raised and chanted “Peace to Ukraine”.
Ukraine’s Olympic Committee will announce on Friday (Saturday in Manila) whether they will boycott Sochi, after lawmakers in the Crimean peninsula announced they want to join Russia.
Crimea has been a point of contention since the beginning of the month as Kiev accused Moscow of sending troops there to block key facilities, while Russian President Vladimir Putin said he intends to use military force to protect Russian-speaking people from the “extremist” opposition who have overthrown the former Ukrainian regime.
Biathlete and skier Grygoriy Vovchinsky, who won two silver and two bronze medals at the Vancouver Paralympics in 2010, called for peace among speakers of all languages in Ukraine.
“We love all of Ukraine the way it is!!! Let people speak the way they like and the way it is easier — Russian, Ukrainian or English, it does not matter and may God give us the energy to learn to understand each other!!!” he wrote on Facebook.