Russia opens Paralympics as Crimea crisis rages across sea

Russia opens Paralympics as Crimea crisis rages across sea

Russia opens its first ever Winter Paralympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi today, an opportunity for people with disabilities to triumph but which the crisis in Ukraine threatens to derail.

Amid a chill reminiscent of the Cold War, athletes continued to train ahead of the opening ceremony, which is scheduled for 8:14 pm (1614 GMT), and raised their national flags in the Olympic village at the welcoming ceremony on Thursday.

Among them were 31 Ukrainians, who have decided to stay to compete, the head of Ukraine's paralympic committee said on Friday after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin just hours before the opening ceremony.

"We are staying so that people remember Ukraine, a sovereign country that has sent a team here," said Valery Sushkevich to applause from a packed conference hall.

"I pray to God that the Paralympics help peace in Europe, the world, and my home Ukraine," he said, after meeting with President Putin late on Thursday and asking him that Russia does not attack Ukraine during the Games.

He said he had not received any assurances from the Russian leader who merely "took into account" the request.

Sushkevich added that any further escalation could still force the team to leave mid-Games although he refused to elaborate.

Previously the Ukrainian paralympic committee had said that the team would not stay in Sochi unless Russia pulls its troops from Crimea before the opening ceremony.

Sushkevich said the Ukrainian team was in Sochi representing the country and "cannot be indifferent to the situation" there, so their participation in the opening ceremony parade on Friday evening would be in a "special format, very subdued" but without political slogans.

"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.

The event will not be attended by political delegations from the United States, Britain, Norway, and Germany. France was the latest to announce on Friday that is has not sent officials to Sochi.

"It would have been very inappropriate for French ministers to be there," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French radio.

Putin is set to attend the opening ceremony, which organisers promised to be just as dazzling as the Olympic ceremonies last month.

Konstantin Ernst, the producer of Olympic ceremonies and head of the state-run Channel One said on Friday that the opening will have a theme of "Breaking the Ice" and tell a story of overcoming barriers.

The show was created by a team that included two Oscar laureates, one of whom was Russian animator Alexander Petrov.

The head of the International Paralympic Committee Sir Philip Craven praised organisers for transforming the city "to make it accessible for everyone" and building "perfect" venues.

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. 

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