‘On the roadsides there were shot up cars where people had been killed’: Facing war, death and destruction ahead of Olympics

Damond Isiaka
12 Min Read

Kyiv, Ukraine

As she hits the mats in a large, bright gym in a recreational area near Kyiv, the ongoing war with Russia is very much on Ukrainian wrestler Iryna Kolyadenko’s mind.

Amid thousands of civilian casualties and as the war grinds on, Ukrainians like Kolyadenko competing at the Paris Olympics face an existential challenge as much as an athletic one.

The 25-year-old is no stranger to the physical demands of training but for the first Olympics since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the one-time bronze medal winner is upping her mental game in anticipation of squaring off against Russian athletes.

“I consider it my mission to prevent them from getting on the podium,” Kolyadenko told CNN. “If I show my emotions, demonstrate them, it will prevent me from winning … but, of course, there will be no handshakes,” she said.

Russians and Belarusians will be participating in the games as Individual Neutral Athletes and that means Ukrainian athletes could end up facing off against them.

Ukrainian service members and locals inspect destroyed Russian military vehicles, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in the village of Dmytrivka in Kyiv region, Ukraine April 1, 2022.

Ukraine’s sports ministry has issued guidelines for their athletes competing at the upcoming Games in Paris including refraining from joint photos, press conferences, and events with Russian and Belarusian athletes, not commenting on social media, keeping a distance from them during award ceremonies, and much more.

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Acting Sports Minister Matviy Bidnyi told CNN that the reason for the recommendations was several incidents that have already occurred at competitions of various levels ahead of the Olympics, including the refusal to shake hands with a Russian athlete at the world championships, which resulted in disqualification for fencer Olga Kharlan.

According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Sport, discussions were held with international federations in various sports over its athletes not wanting to shake hands with Russian and Belarusian athletes at the Paris Olympics. As a result, the international federations decided that Ukrainian athletes wouldn’t be disqualified for not shaking hands with individual neutral athletes.

For Kolyadenko, shaking hands with Russian and Belarusian athletes is a no-go.

“The Russian military destroyed my apartment, the Russian military is destroying my life, the lives of my family and the whole country, how can I treat them? Of course, negatively. I don’t want Russians to take part in the competition at all. This is unacceptable,” she said.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Kolyadenko was at the gym in Kyiv where she now is training for the Paris Games.

Wrestler Iryna Kolyadenko walks around the training base where she met the start of Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022 and is now preparing for the Paris Olympics.

“That day, we were supposed to fly to Turkey for a competition, but at 4 a.m. we woke up hearing explosions. Of course, I was totally confused and didn’t know what to do.

“But then I gathered my thoughts, packed my things and went to Irpin … At that time, I did not understand what had happened,” adds Kolyadenko as she recalled traveling to Dymtrivka village to be with her grandmother, aunt and sister.

Three days later, she says, dozens of Russian military vehicles entered Irpin. Residential areas were shelled, and civilians were killed.

The village where Kolyadenko and her family were staying, was under constant shelling. The family moved to the basement. One day, when Kolyadenko went upstairs to get her stuff, she says, the wrestler saw through her window there were Russian troops rappelling down a ladder from a helicopter.

Iryna works on techniques and moves in a training sparring session with her younger sister.

Running out of food, and with no water or gas, and no medicines being delivered and little prospect of evacuation, Kolyadenko and her relatives left the village

“It was already very dangerous,” said Kolyadenko. “On the roadsides there were shot up cars where people had been killed.”

Kolyadenko spent more than a day driving with her family and relatives. She says she didn’t think about sports or training at all, because she didn’t know if they would survive.

‘We had no choice.. because our families were there’

Kolyadenko was not the only one to experience such a life-threatening situation. The head coach of the women’s wrestling team, Volodymyr Evonov, also encountered Russian troops at the base near Kyiv.

Almost immediately, he left for his family in Kherson, even though there was already information that convoys of Russian heavy vehicles were heading towards the city from annexed Crimea.

“We traveled to meet the war. We had no choice. On the way, we saw our military digging trenches. They told us not to go there. We went anyway. Because our families were there,” Evonov told CNN as he recalled those first days of invasion.

The head coach of the women's national freestyle wrestling team Volodymyr Evonov spent more than 1.5 months in his Russian-occupied hometown of Kherson, which he was unable to return to due to the danger of living and training there.

A week later, the Russians entered Kherson. Local residents resisted them, took to the streets with posters and flags to stop Russian tanks, and organized pro-Ukrainian rallies in the city’s central square until repression began against the activists.

The athletes had their own form of protest – they continued to train.

“We trained regularly and waited for our military to release us,” added Evonov. “A month passed in this expectation. It was getting harder and harder. We got together with our coaches, took some of the athletes and our families and in mid-April (2022) we took advantage of the window of opportunity and managed to leave.”

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After Evonov and his colleagues left their hometown, Kherson remained under occupation until the city was liberated in 2023, though it remains under constant shelling. It is no longer possible to continue training there, according to Evonov.

Just a month after the war began, the women’s national wrestling team was able to gather for a joint training session at the Olympic center of the Hungarian team in Tata.

The Ukraine women’s team was then invited to live and train in a safe environment by their Japanese colleagues, where they spent a fortnight in June 2023. The Ukraine women’s team also spent another two months in the US, where they were hosted by local universities.

These days, the women have returned to regular training at their base near Kyiv. They have endured blackouts caused by Russian targeting of electricity infrastructure and spent sleepless nights as missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles hit the city. While Kyiv is much better protected these days the war shows no sign of ending.

A view shows residential buildings destroyed during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the town of Irpin, outside Kyiv, Ukraine April 29, 2022.

Difficult training conditions

The conditions under which the athletes have prepared for the Paris Olympics affected the team’s results. At the Tokyo Olympics, the women’s wrestling team won five licenses. This year, only two athletes – Kolyadenko and Oksana Livach – will go to Paris.

According to Bidnyi, more than 100 athletes will represent the Ukrainian national team in Paris.

Given the conditions in which they have been preparing for the Olympics over the past two years, the Ministry of Sports of Ukraine says this number of athletes competing is quite positive given that there is a war going on.

“It’s clear that during the aggression, when, for example, Russia caused a blackout last winter, it was very difficult to train,” said Bidnyi.

“The temperature in the halls sometimes dropped so much that we had to train in our outerwear. Another example is that our synchronized swimmers train in a pool in Kharkiv, which actually has a hole in the roof because a missile hit it. It is clear that these are not the conditions that can be called normal,” added Bidnyi.

Over 500 sports infrastructure facilities have been destroyed since the full-scale invasion, according to Bidnyi. These are the ones located on the territory controlled by Ukraine. There is no verified information about the destroyed infrastructure facilities in the occupied part.

“There are athletes whose loved ones and parents are at constant risk,” said Bidnyi. “Someone’s relatives are serving on the frontline today, and the athletes are worried about them.

“Some of our athletes have lost their parents, who lived a peaceful life until a missile hit their home. There are a lot of such stories. Some lost their homes, some lost their loved ones,” adds Bidnyi.

For Kolyadenko, getting a license and preparing for the Paris Olympics was more difficult than for any other competition in her career. Given the uncertainty in Ukraine, she says she cannot plan her professional life after the Olympics. For now, here only goal is do her country proud.

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