Putin opens Paralympics as Crimea crisis rages across sea

Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the Winter Paralympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Friday, an opportunity for people with disabilities to triumph but overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine.

AFP| Updated: Mar 08, 2014, 01:03 AM IST

Sochi: Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the Winter Paralympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Friday, an opportunity for people with disabilities to triumph but overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine.

As athletes from 45 countries took part in the opening ceremony, only one Ukrainian competitor appeared in a symbolic, scaled-down presence of the country that has renounced Russia`s intervention in Crimea.

Huge cheers accompanied skier and biathlete Mykhailo Tkachenko who came through the Fisht stadium in his wheelchair, with some in the crowd standing up in support as he carried the Ukraine flag.

Some Western countries have not sent government delegations to Sochi in protest at Russia`s Crimea intervention leaving International Paralympic Committee president Philip Craven and International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach to greet the national teams of Britain and Germany.

Ukraine`s team of 31 had decided earlier Friday that they would not be boycotting the Games.

The Paralympics in Russia, running until March 16, are a major symbolic step for a country that for decades stigmatised people with disabilities and which only began to build accessible facilities in the run-up to the international event.

"A new history of Russia is beginning, a history without barriers and stereotypes," said Sochi Organising Committee head Dmitry Chernyshenko.

Many people with disabilities participated in the opening ceremony, held exactly one month after Russia mounted a dazzling Winter Olympics opening, and also featured classical ballet numbers.

It also included a monumental icebreaker that drifted across the stage to the sound of crushing ice.

Russia`s notable Paralympians participated in the final relay to light the cauldron, including swimmer Olesya Vladykina and skier Sergei Shilov, who lit it with the final torch to booming fireworks.

Putin, who met with Ukrainian Paralympic Committee head Valery Sushkevich, earlier said that he hoped that the Paralympic spirit will help "cool the tensions" surrounding Russia`s policy on Ukraine, which already caused the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.

Sushkevich told journalists Friday that he personally appealed to Putin for peace but did not receive any assurances.

"I don`t remember a situation in the history of the Paralympic movement when the host country began an intervention into a participating country," he said.

"We hope there will be steps for de-escalation, for lessening the threat of war," he said.

Holding back tears, Paralympic skier Grygoriy Vovchinsky said that the team "is from all over Ukraine" and "speaks both Russian and Ukrainian."

"We are here, we represent a young country, and we are ready to fight, to show that we are a strong nation, an independent nation. We love life, we love sport, and we love a fair fight," said Vovchinsky.

IPC`s Craven praised organisers for transforming the city "to make it accessible for everyone" and building "perfect" venues.

Since Russia refused to host the Paralympic Games after the Moscow Summer Olympics in 1980, "the prospect of Russia hosting the Paralympic Games was nothing but a dream," Craven said, praising Sochi`s "monumental transformation."

Russia`s team placed first in the Winter Olympics, an unexpected success which was a major boost to national pride.

A total of 45 countries and 575 athletes will be competing in Sochi in five sports, including alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, wheelchair curling and sledge hockey.

For the first time ever, alpine skiing will include snowboarding as a discipline.

Soviet Russia did not participate in the Paralympic movement until the 1988 Games in Seoul, at the onset of perestroika, and people with disabilities often remained invisible in society, unable to exit their apartments or even sent to special homes.

The stigma against people with disabilities still persists in the country, which only recently began to invest in urban infrastructure that ensures equal access.