Ukraine Paralympians raise national flag in Sochi amid crisis
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia – Ukraine's Paralympics team on Thursday, March 6, raised their national flag in Russia's Sochi in a heartfelt ceremony though it remained unclear whether the athletes will boycott the event.
The 31-strong team sang the national anthem in the Olympic village as the blue and yellow flag was raised during the welcome ceremony of the 45 participating countries ahead of the opening of the Paralympics on Friday, March 7.
"Everything went peacefully, and the athletes chanted 'Peace to Ukraine' after singing the anthem," said team spokeswoman, Natalia Garach.
The team however is yet to formally announce whether or not it will be boycotting the Games over Russia's intervention in Ukraine's Crimea, after the region's MPs voted Thursday to annex the peninsula to Russia, in what Kiev denounced as a coup.
Garach said the national paralympic committee is due to hold a press conference on the subject Friday.
Earlier the committee said the athletes will be leaving Sochi unless Russia pulls its military presence out of the peninsula after days of a standoff with Ukraine's own troops.
Ukraine placed fifth on the medals table at the Vancouver Winter Paralympics in 2010.
The team includes star athletes like Oleksandra Kononova, a 23-year-old para-biathlete and skier who finished with three gold medals in Canada and became a national sports hero.
Though they have been training hard in Sochi, it was clear the political situation back home is on the athletes' minds.
"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!!!" wrote skier and Vancouver medallist Grygoriy Vovchinsky on Facebook.
To show support for Ukraine, social networks asked Paralympic athletes to wear the country's national colors.
"We are with you, Ukraine," Czech alpine skier Patrik Hetmer wrote, posting a picture of a Ukrainian flag hanging on a balcony in the Olympic village.
The United States, Britain and Norway have said they will not send government delegations to the Games.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said this week that countries who try to undermine the Paralympics by non-attendance or through a boycott have "nothing sacred."
The opening ceremony will begin Friday at 1614GMT. – Rappler.com
FULL COVERAGE: Crisis in Ukraine