He’s talked in the media about his complete readiness to compete and has expressed his confidence that he’ll bring back “a beautiful medal.” We hope he means a gold one.Yana Klochkova, a Ukrainian legend, won four medals in Athens in
2004 and has set 50 records in Ukraine and one world record. This year, feeling herself a little long in the tooth for an Olympian, she’ll com-pete only as a member of the relay team, a decision that she arrived at after a lot of soul-searching. Klochkova says that, at 26, she simply can’t compete with the younger generation on her own, but she’ll cer tainly be a strong member of her relay squad. (She might not be giving her 26 year old body enough credit: U.S. swimmer Dana Torres will be competing in Beijing this summer at age 41.)Anna Bezsonova is trained by the respected former gymnast Iry-na Derugina, and won a gold medal in the 2007 world champion-ship and a silver in the European championship this year. She could very well come home from Beijing with a gold medal that weighs almost as much as she does, continuing the former Soviet coun-tries’ gymnastic dominance. Bezsonova has sports in her blood, as her mother was also a top gymnast and her father a famous football player for Dynamo Kyiv.Shot-putter Yuriy Bilonog, as Sumy native, took home a gold from Athens and chances are good that he’s going to do just the
Shot-putter Bilonog has gotten a new haircut for the occasion: he’s now bald except for a small oval of hair on top
same this year. He seems psychologically prepared, having gotten a new haircut just for the occasion: he’s now bald except for a small oval of hair on top. These days he’s easily chucking the heavy ball 21 metres, but to win first place in Beijing he’ll have to break 22 metres. Yuriy is 30, which is old for a gymnast but young for shot-putters, who come into their own a little later: mature, stout bod-ies are what the sport requires. He says he’s in the best shape of his life. Recently he tried his hand at fashion modeling, demonstrating the new Ukrainian Olympic uniform for journalists. Asked if he’s got butterflies in his stomach, he responded, “There’s nothing I’m afraid of, I’m going to China for a medal.” That’s the spirit, Yuriy.Iryna Merleni, who was born ‘Melnyk’ but made her name more Greek after relocating to Greece to train, has been called “Ukraine’s golden hope” for Beijing 2008. She took a gold in Athens and before that won several world championships. Last year Iryna had a baby, but after a short break she returned to the wrestling mat and has been making short work of opponents on the Ukrainian circuit. Will she win another medal this year? Odds are she will.
This being the former Soviet UNI0N, even the composition of the Olympic team has generated some controversy there’s even been a whiff of corruption. Ukraine’s Olympic delegation this year will count 440 members (254 of them athletes, the rest support staff), which is a lot: this will be the biggest delegation independent Ukraine has ever sent. Ukrainian National Olympic Committee president Serhiy Bubka (a legendary pole-vaulter from the Soviet era) says that that number is reasonable and reflects the quality of Ukraine’s Olympic programme, but others are not so sure. Fencing coach Yuriy Chyzh, for example, says that too many pretenders who don’t have a chance of winning medals are going to Beijing. “Previously,” he says, “we sent only athletes who had a shot at medals. There’s no sense sending someone who’s going to come in in 100th place.” Why are such relatively marginal ath-letes going this year? “It’s easy to understand,” he answers. “The more athletes go, the more people from the NOC get to go.” At the Athens Olympics in 2004, Yuriy says, he met lots of Ukrai-nian mayors, bureaucrats and other members of the power structure who had gotten a nice Greek vacation on the public chit. On the other hand, some people who should have been there didn’t get to go, like the personal trainer of one top Ukrainian sprinter. “I remember that Olena Krasovska was begging for her trainer to be allowed to come with her to the competition, but [the NOC] didn’t let her. I saw myself how she called him constantly because his voice was inspiring to her.”
In 1976 Chyzh realised that even sports can be politicised. Today, the situation is no better
Krasovska won a silver medal, but she did so despite her alleged sup-port structure, not thanks to it. Chyzh, by the way, never got to com-pete in the Olympics as a young man, even though he was eminently qualified. The Soviet regime didn’t let him go to the Montreal Games in 1976. Why? He had a “dangerous” friend, the film director Sergiy Paradganov, who was as despised by the Kremlin and the KGB as he was famed for his art. That was when Chyzh realised that even sports can be politicised. Almost two decades after the USSR’s downfall, the situation is no bet-ter. Politicians use the NOC for their own purposes. “In 2004,” says Yuriy, “Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych was electedpresident of the National Olympic Committee, which in fact is absurd. Even more ab-surd is that the NOC has a special quota in the state budget. [It should be] financed by sponsors. Now we know where that money goes – the Ukrainian NOC has nearly 100 members, while in other countries simi-lar organisations have perhaps five members.” One of the more amus-ing events in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election was seeing a waving Yanukovych lead the Ukrainian Olympic team in the parade at the Athens opening ceremonies. It was a shameless campaign move. And this year there was a minor bit of comedy when government min-isters received Olympic uniforms before the athletes did.
On the other hand, watching the Olympics will still be magic, and like other post-Soviet countries, Ukraine will be a major competitor. Yuriy Pavlenko, the Minister of Family, Youth and Sports, says Ukraine will probably bring back 12-14 medals, two or three of them gold. Chy-zh says that’s too conservative an estimate and predicts nearly 30 med-als, 10 of them gold. “Events like swimming, gymnastics, track and field, fencing and rowing will definitely generate medals,” he says. But wait! Even the business of predicting medals is politicised in Ukraine, and people in official positions lowball the estimates so that they’re not blamed if something goes wrong, and look great if the esti-mates are exceeded. “NOC members and politicians are afraid of losing their posts,” says Chyzh. “They don’t care about medals but about their own interests. They know themselves that Ukraine will win more than 12 medals, but when our sportsmen do come home with more [the NOC members and politicians] will boast and take the credit.”Nonetheless, let’s close on a happy note. Enjoy the events and go Ukraine!