Ukraine Paralympic chief fears disabled sport 'will die'
Ukraine's top Paralympic official fears that the country's programme for disabled athletes is on the cusp of collapse after Russia's invasion and is warning of dire consequences.
The eastern European country has 2.7 million people living with disabilities and has traditionally punched above its weight at both Summer and Winter Paralympic Games.
But 10 weeks into a conflict that has killed thousands of people, the Ukrainian government has been forced to channel all resources into the war effort and can no longer fund its Paralympic programme.
The National Sports Committee for the Disabled of Ukraine needs an urgent injection of funds and is seeking international donations.
"We are leaders in the Paralympic movement and Deaflympics," Ukraine Paralympic committee president Valeriy Sushkevych told AFP by telephone from Brazil.
"Today I am afraid that sports for disabled in Ukraine will die."
Sushkevych is in Brazil overseeing Ukraine's Deaflympics squad, who currently top the medal table with 46 medals including 24 gold, more than double the number of podium finishes compared to the United States in second.
Ukraine recorded their best-ever result at the Winter Paralympics in Beijing in March, coming second with 29 medals including 11 gold, a source of national pride during a time of great turmoil.
Stellar performances in cross-country skiing and biathlon showed Ukrainian athletes' extraordinary resilience given the immense stress and fears for family back home.
One athlete learnt her house had been bombed in an air strike but won gold days later.
The winter sport training centre in the country's west has now become a makeshift refugee camp for more than 300 people including a 94-year-old grandmother and children as young as three months old.
"We can't say no, we are only sports," Sushkevych said, adding that many athletes and their families were also staying there, along with a coach who lost his home in heavily bombed Kharkiv.
Others are hiding in basements with their families, unable to go outside freely, let alone resume training.
"The best athletes in the world in Paralympic sport don't know if they can continue their sports," Sushkevych said.
Ukraine's efforts in Brazil and China has boosted morale among Ukraine citizens grappling with the horrors of war, he said.
"It's a very strong spirit... they say on social media that 'you are necessary for us'," Sushkevych said.
He hopes the country's disabled sports programme can survive, especially for the wellbeing of Ukrainians who are injured during the war and become amputees.
"It will be very difficult to restore the Paralympic movement if it dies," he added.
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