‘They play, we suffer’: Olympian who led Beijing protest calls for Russian ban | Sean Ingle

Having made waves with his protest in Beijing, skeleton athlete Vladyslav Heraskevych wants Russians banned from all sports

Days before Vladyslav Heraskevych’s country was plunged into an enduring nightmare the skeleton athlete provided one of the defining images of the Winter Olympics. Facing the TV cameras he held up a simple sign – “No war in Ukraine” – even though he feared it would get him kicked out of Beijing. It was an act of defiance which made headlines around the globe. But then his world, like that of millions of other Ukrainians, was violently torn from him.

Four months later Heraskevych is back with a new message. This time it is delivered from the bombed out Chernihiv Olympic Training and Sports Centre, 31 miles from the border of Belarus, after he has spent the day pushing young kids scarred by war on sleds. “It is time for all sports to ban Russian athletes until the war is over,” Heraskevych says. “It is absolutely crazy that they play while we suffer.”

He had just watched kids push sleds around the Yuri Gagarin Stadium track, pretending to be Olympians, to a backdrop of a destroyed main stand and an enormous crater in the pitch. Before the war Desna Chernihiv, who were seventh in the Ukrainian Premier League, played here. Meanwhile thousands of amateurs trained in the massive sporting complex. Now, Heraskevych says, a population of 300,000 has very little.

“The idea of coming to Chernihiv is to use sports to bring happiness to kids whose childhood has been stolen by occupiers,” he says. “For over a month these kids heard rockets and explosions all around them. They had nightmares. They had to stay in basements to stay safe. But they are still kids and they need to have fun. And we also want to show that sport can help people’s lives feel a bit more normal.”

In the early days of the war Heraskevych went to the war zone to hand out medical supplies and food as rockets landed around him. “It was really scary. You didn’t know whether you would be alive or dead, especially when rocket shells were landing a few hundred metres from you.”

Now, however, he is devoting his time to helping kids and his charity foundation, which raises funds for Ukraine’s public services and helps victims of the war. He also wants to use his voice to spread another message: international sports must be brave enough to follow Wimbledon’s lead by completely banning Russians – not only in solidarity with Ukraine but as an act of sporting justice. That, it is clear, would mean Russia and all its athletes being banned from the Paris 2024 Olympics. “Russia has always used sport for propaganda,” he says. “But now sport is being used for war propaganda too.”

Heraskevych holds up a sign which reads: “No War in Ukraine”
Heraskevych’s one-man protest in Beijing made headlines worldwide. Photograph: AP

Heraskevych says it is crazy that some people claim that sport is separate from politics. As he points out, early on in the war, when Vladimir Putin held a mass rally in support of the invasion at the Luzhniki Stadium, Russian medallists from cross-country skiing, gymnastics, figure skating and swimming gathered on stage to support him. Most were also wearing jackets with a “Z” on the chest, a symbol of support for the Russian army.

“Where do Russian athletes get their money from? It’s from the government. And they represent their country, even without a flag by their name. Everyone knows it’s Russia. And in many Olympic sports Russian athletes are also soldiers. So they are members of the Russian army – an army that now attacks Ukraine.”

Heraskevych can see a road back for Russia. But he wants it to be a long one. “In my opinion all Russian athletes should be suspended from international sports until its army leaves Ukraine territory – and until they pay reparations so that all sports buildings can be rebuilt. Until they do that the idea sounds stupid.

“The truth is that over the next 10 years Ukraine will be pushed back in sports. In many places our sports infrastructure has been destroyed. Our kids are not able to do anything. And yet Russian athletes are able to train and compete as usual. How can this be right?”

So much of the legal debate about Russian athletes is whether they should be punished for the sins of their country. Yet Heraskevych wonders how many of them really care about Ukraine’s suffering. “Not one Russian athlete has sent me a message to ask if I am OK or if I am still alive. Even those I know well from the circuit. And no one has acted against the war. They are either staying quiet or supporting it. And some junior Russian bobsleigh athletes have even messaged me to say they want a bomb dropped on my house. I can’t understand it when these people know me.”

He praises Britain’s support but has a message for other governments, too. “Give us the power to stop this war – and to bring peace to the world.” For the time being Heraskevych’s primary goal is to help kids in previously occupied areas enjoy some sort of normality – he plans to hold further camps with gymnastics stars and athletes, and even to bring go-carts in the future. Further down the line he would love to compete in the Olympics again. “I’d love to fight for medals but right now I’m not really thinking about it. Not when war is going on in Ukraine. And our country, people and sports are suffering.”


Sean Ingle

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Russian curler fails Winter Olympics drug test
A Russian athlete who won a bronze medal in the mixed curling at the Winter Olympics has reportedly failed a drugs test

Sean Ingle in Pyeongchang

18, Feb, 2018 @12:47 PM

Article image
‘I will not go’: Vettel calls on F1 to scrap Russian GP after Ukraine invasion
The four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel has issued a strident call for Formula One to abandon this season’s scheduled race in Russia after its invasion of Ukraine

Giles Richards in Barcelona

24, Feb, 2022 @5:35 PM

Article image
Anti-doping agencies call on IOC to ban Russia from 2018 Winter Olympics
Nado, a group of leading anti-doping agencies, has called for the IOC to stop paying ‘lip service’ to the fight against doping and extend Russia’s Olympic ban

Sean Ingle

14, Sep, 2017 @10:00 AM

Article image
Winter Olympics: highs, lows, heroes and villains of Beijing 2022
Our writers pick their best moments, from Alexandra Trusova’s extraordinary rant to Erin Jackson’s groundbreaking gold

Sean Ingle, Bryan Armen Graham and Martin Belam

21, Feb, 2022 @12:05 PM

Article image
Russian doctors and athletes ‘switched urine samples’ at Sochi Olympics
Russian doctors and athletes worked together to evade drug tests at the Sochi Olympics, passing containers of urine through a hole in the wall to replace tainted samples, the New York Times has reported

Sean Ingle

12, May, 2016 @6:12 PM

Article image
Russia may be banned from Rio Olympics over state-sponsored doping
Russia could be banned from competing at the Rio Olympics after a damning report from the World Anti-Doping Agency lifted the lid on a state-sponsored doping cover-up

Sean Ingle

18, Jul, 2016 @8:37 PM

Article image
The elite and the damned: Beijing 2022 begins with dose of realpolitik
Much as the IOC may want political and human rights issues to fade into the background, they show little sign of doing so

Sean Ingle in Beijing

03, Feb, 2022 @6:06 PM

Article image
Boycott questions over Beijing Winter Olympics raise eerie echoes of 1936 | Sean Ingle
China’s treatment of Uighurs has been deemed by Canada as genocide. Are we about to legitimise the regime responsible?

Sean Ingle

01, Mar, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Great Britain miss out on first Beijing medal after crushing mixed curling loss
The world champions Jen Dodds and Bruce Mouat were defeated 9-3 by Sweden in their bronze medal match

Sean Ingle at Beijing National Aquatics Centre

08, Feb, 2022 @11:26 AM

Article image
Winter Olympics 2022: 10 things to look out for in Beijing
Jamaica return to the bobsleigh after 24 years, Haiti and Saudi Arabia make debuts, while GB aim for curling glory

Sean Ingle and Bryan Armen Graham in Beijing

04, Feb, 2022 @12:00 AM