For Ukrainian competitors, Invictus Games is a break from war

HAAG, Netherlands (AP) – Until a few days ago, Volodymyr Musyak was at the front line defending Ukraine against Russia’s devastating attack on his nation. Now he is preparing to pick up the bow and arrow in the Invictus Games archery competition.

The sporting event for active service personnel and veterans who are sick, injured or wounded opens on Saturday and ends on April 22 in this Dutch city that calls itself the Global Center for Peace and Justice.

These concepts seem to be a world away for the team of 19 athletes from Ukraine and their supporters when they settle in The Hague for the matches.

“I think emotionally it’s something that takes time … because we come from a very disturbed area, as we come from the areas where the actual killings happen every day, the shelling, the bombing, we hear sirens every day, “said Oksana Horbach, Ukraine’s national coordinator for Invictus Games.

One of the team, Taira Paievska, did not even reach the trip after being taken hostage by Russian forces in Mariupol, where she worked as a paramedic, Horbach said.

Four Ukrainians who were not to attend the Games but were active in the worldwide community of wounded soldiers and women died in March, two while in active service and two in rocket attacks, Invictus Games organizers said on their website.

Pavlo Kovalskyi, who participates in rowing, archery, wheelchair basketball and possibly also seated volleyball, said that in addition to competing, he wants to spread the message about the harsh realities of war in his home country.

Traveling to the Games gives the 31-year-old a chance “better to tell, convey information to the audience, our friends, our new acquaintances, just other athletes, what’s happening now,” he said.

Ukrainian Veterans Affairs Minister Yuliia Laputina agreed that competitors decided to participate as a way to spread the word.

“They wanted to be with their country, their people, but by understanding the role of sports ambassadorship in international relations, they make … the decision to participate, and it was a difficult decision for them,” she said.

Members of the Ukrainian team caused a stir on Friday night at a reception also attended by Britain’s Prince Harry – if the idea games were – and his wife Meghan.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy invited the team via a video link after their arrival on Thursday.

“The victory is important to us, it is important to prove that we are all undefeated,” he told the participants. “And your team is part of the indomitable spirit of Ukraine, the Ukrainian people and each and every one of us.”

The Ukrainians are among about 500 competitors from 20 nations participating in the Invictus Games. Russia has never participated in any of the previous matches and does not have a team in The Hague.

This year’s game was twice delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. The first edition of the Games was held in London in 2014, followed by Orlando in 2016, Toronto in 2017 and Sydney in 2018.

Service personnel compete in athletics, archery, cycling, indoor rowing, powerlifting, seated volleyball, swimming, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby as well as a driving challenge organized by one of the event’s official partners, automaker Jaguar Land Rover.

For the Ukrainians, the games are a short respite from the gloomy realities of life in wartime and an opportunity to highlight the situation of their nation.

“The death, the devastation, the rapes, everything, it’s something that my competitors and teammates experience every day,” Horbach said. ‘So it must be heard, it must be told. It is very important to us that we as Ukrainians have that voice, have a platform to express who we are, what we do and what we experience every single day since February 24, ”when the Russian invasion started.

Musyak, who suffers from concussion caused by a mine explosion, competes in events including archery but has to prepare without his coach, Dmytro Sydoruk, who died in the war.

“On the eve of our departure, he died,” Musyak said. “Whether it is military or civilian, any loss to us, especially when our children are killed, when civilians are killed, when women are killed, is an irreparable loss.”

And while Musyak competes in The Hague, his thoughts are elsewhere.

“We’re only here the second day we came here from the front line, and so far I’m mentally with my brothers-in-arms, of course,” he said. “After the end of the competition, we will return to the front line to defend our country.”

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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