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Ukraine’s first gold medalist urges Bach to ban Russians

  • April 19, 2023

“Dear Thomas,” Olympic gold medal skater Oksana Baiul-Farina’s begins her video address to the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach. Baiul-Farina is speaking directly to the camera in a post on her Instagram account.

“Now there is a widespread war going on in Ukraine.”

Baiul-Farina speaks slowly, just above a whisper. 

“We, Ukrainians, did not start it,” Baiul-Farina is shaking her head. 

“This is why we don’t want neutral athletes, athletes from Russia to participate in 2024 Olympic Games.”

Gold medal weighs heavy

For her appeal to Bach, Baiul-Farina wore her yellow and blue Ukrainian Olympic Team warmup jacket from 1994, the year of her triumph in the Olympics held in Lillehammer, Norway.

Baiul-Farina was 16-years-old then. Her mother had died three years earlier meaning, as a minor, she navigated the high-pressure world of elite international competition practically on her own. This, after Ukraine first gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and its upstart Olympic committee was in its infancy. 

Now she is considered “Queen Oksana” by many, Ukraine’s greatest figure skater, and one of its finest-ever athletes. 

“My gold medal weighs so much now,” she told DW. “Every time I speak about Ukraine, especially now, my husband asks me to be strong for being able to speak up for the people. The truth is they are hurting right now.”

Baiul-Farina, now living in the US, has seen her home country endure thousands of Russian missile strikes, killing tens of thousands and sending millions fleeing from their homes.

Her Ukrainian hometown, Dnipro, has seen myriad attacks, including a devastating strike on a residential building in January that left at least 45 people dead, six of them children.

Residents of Dnipro look on as rescuers scramble to save lives at a partially-destroyed pair of apartment towers.
Residents of Dnipro look on as rescuers scramble to save lives after a block of apartments was hit by a Russian missilesImage: Ukrinform/dpa/picture alliance

 “So when I think about the medal, I have made a promise to myself that I’m not going to cry. I’m going to stay strong and I’m going to speak about how I feel,” she said. “Ukrainian people may feel like they wanted to give up, but they can’t. They have to keep fighting.”

Then why do we need Thomas?”

Talking to DW, Baiul-Farina knows her words, as a former Olympic champion, and someone who stole hearts young and old with her performance as a teen, carry weight. But she admits it’s a long shot now to try to change the mind of IOC President Thomas Bach.  

Bach and the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee voted last month to recommend to individual sports federations that they allow for a gradual return to international competition by Russian and Belarusian athletes as neutrals. Bach himself said that the participation of Russian and Belarus athletes in international competition “works” despite the Russian invasion.

It’s a turnaround from the IOC’s recommendation just after the full-scale invasion when they began to ban athletes from Russian and Belarus. Most sports federations followed the recommendation then, and many are lining up behind the new recommendation now. Bach and the IOC maintain they will make a decision about athlete participation specifically for the 2024 Paris Olympics at a later time.

1994 Olympic figure skating gold medalist Oksana Baiul-Farina, with her toddler daughter, at a peace demonstration.
1994 Olympic figure skating gold medalist Oksana Baiul-Farina, with her daughter, at a Las Vegas Ukraine rally for peace.Image: Brett Forrest/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

“If I was Thomas Bach, I would wait until the end of the war, because it’s too early to tell everyone you can decide for yourselves,” said Baiul-Farina. “If what he said is right, and everyone [all sports federations] can decide for themselves, then why do we need Thomas?”

‘Can you imagine to be in the same dressing room?’ 

Baiul-Farina maintains contact with the Ukrainian Figure Skating Federation and has offered to help bring skaters to the US to train. All have said they are staying to practice in Ukraine skating rinks, their routines occasionally interrupted by air raid sirens.

Russian star figure skater Kamila Valieva is seen in competition at the 2022 Olympics
IOC recommendations would allow for Russian athletes, such as figure skater Kamila Valieva, to compete as a “neutral” in international events.Image: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP

She thinks about what it would be like competing in an event in which Russians are allowed to participate while her country is at war. 

“I mean, can you imagine to be in the same dressing room? Oh my god, I can’t.” 

Edited by: James Thorogood

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