Ukrainians Going for Gold in Beijing
This month sees the start of the 29th modern Olympic Games in the Chinese capital of Beijing. Ukraine will be taking a record number of athletes to compete in a bid to continue a modern tradition of Olympic excellence which has seen the former Soviet republic score a number of high-profile victories since first participating in 1996. Despite the under-funding which has plagued Ukrainian sports since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the country’s tradition as a centre of sporting excellence has been maintained by a string of talented athletes, with Lviv sports stars playing their part in keeping the Ukrainian Olympic dream alive.
Throughout the Soviet era the communist authorities attached great importance to the propaganda value of scoring victories at international sporting events, resulting in the establishment of some of the world’s finest specialist sports training facilities across the USSR. Ukrainian athletes traditionally made up a key component part of the soviet teams, with such legends as Ukraine’s Donetsk native pole vault hero Sergiy Bubka becoming legends of Olympic history.
A long delayed debut
Ukraine’s first appearance as an independent country in the Olympic Games actually came in 1994 at the Lillehammer Games, where Ukrainian figure skater Oksana Baul became the country’s first gold medalist of the modern, post-Soviet era. At the Atlanta Games in 1996, where the country made its official debut in the summer games, Ukrainian sportsmen won a total of 9 gold medals and 14 other medals, putting them among the top ten countries internationally.
Lviv has always played a prominent role in this story of Olympic excellence. Lviv sprinter Vladislav Ponursky is one of the first great Lvivians to shine at the games, narrowly missing out on a string of medals at the 1912 Games in Stockholm. Lviv’s first Olympic medals came in 1924 in Paris, when Lviv hero Adam Krolikiewicz won bronze in an equestrian event while representing the Polish national team. Following World War II the Lviv sporting tradition was annexed by the Soviet authorities and utilised as part of the effort to impress the world with the excellence of the Socialist sporting ethic. At the Helsinki Games in 1952 Lviv native gymnast Viktor Chukarin rose to glory, winning the first of what would eventually by an 11-medal haul split over this and the following Games in Melbourne, Australia. Chukarin is famed as the first of the truly great Soviet gymnasts, opening the way for a tradition which continues today in all of the former republics of the USSR. Soon after the Melbourne Games he quit competitive sport and began teaching at the Lviv Institute of Physical Education as head of the Gymnastics Department. As an educator he trained several generations of gymnasts who played a key role in cementing Soviet dominance of the gymnastics section of the Games. His students were very proud of their coach and teacher, with success generations of champions dedicating their victories to Chukarin and acknowledging that he was the original champ and the all-time number one.
Foremost fencing city
Lviv has a rich tradition as a city of fencing excellence, something that befits its aristocratic pedigree and sophisticated society. This fencing tradition meant that Lviv athletes traditionally formed the backbone of the Soviet fencing squads and usually resulted in the Soviet team being installed as hot favourites prior to any approaching Games. Victory did not always follow, but the 1968 Olympics in Mexico saw Lviv fencer Pavlo Lednev win gold. Lednev would claim medals at three successive Games following Mexico, making him one of the all-time fencing greats. Many Lviv sportsmen were robbed of the glory of true Olympic gold success by the political boycotts of the 1980s, which saw the Western world and the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc organise protests
against successive games in 1980 and 1984, leading to devalued competitions and a lack of public interest in the Olympic ideal, which lost considerable credibility in the eyes of the athletics world. Thankfully, the end of the Cold War brought an end to this political interruption and since 1992 Ukraine’s athletes have returned to the podium with comforting regularity as the newly- independent nation established itself as a sporting powerhouse in its own right.
Knockout Klitschko leads the way
Despite declaring independence in the summer of 1991, fully one year before the Barcelona Games, Ukraine failed to register its Olympic Committee in time to compete as a separate nation in the 1992 Games and had to wait until Atlanta in 1996 for its debut. Lviv athletes were well represented in this first Ukrainian team, with 15 Lviv natives in the national squad. Unfortunately this impressive representation failed to bring a medal haul, but Ukrainians did have plenty to cheer as the young Volodymyr Klitschko claimed gold in the prestigious Super Heavyweight category and become an international superstar overnight. This knock-out performance was
nearly matched in 200 at the Sydney Games when Lviv local Andrey Kotelnik took silver in his boxing weight category, something which he, like Mr. Klitschko, would use as a stepping stone to a successful professional ring career while fighting out of Germany.
Lviv is renowned as a centre of archery excellence, and it was in this classical discipline that Lviv’s Dmytro Hrachev took bronze medal at the 2004 Athens Games. Also in Athens Lviv lady Irina Merleni took gold medal in the freestyle wrestling category.
Lviv’s Beijing Olympics Hopefuls
This year’s games will feature a number of innovations including BMX cycling and other modern sporting disciplines, but Lviv’s sporting chances will come from more traditional sources. A total of 14 Lvivians will be representing Ukraine at the Games, and they are thought to have a fairly good chance of ending up among the medals. Roman Bondaruk and Oleksandr Petriv will be shooting for Lviv in their pistol-focused sport, boxer Georgiy Chygaev will be carrying on the fine tradition of Ukrainian pugilists; Natalya Synyshin, Yulia Ostapchuk, Oksana Vashuk and Andriy Stadnyk will be flying the flag (and hopefully picking up the gold) for the Lviv freestyle wrestling school; Yaroslav Popovych will be pedaling for the Lion City on the Olympic cycling track; Markiyan Ivashko will be aiming for bulls eye as the representative of the Lviv archery school; elegant Yana Shemyakina will be fencing for Ukraine; super strong Igor Shymechko will be throwing around the kilogrammes in the weightlifting competition; long-legged Dmytro Demyanuk will be arcing his way to a top spot finish in the high jump discipline; while the charming and vivacious Vira Perederiy and Yulia Slobodyan will be twirling and dancing in the finest Lviv tradition in the artistic gymnastics section.
Among Lviv’s best chances of a medal is thought to be Irina Merleni, who will be starring in the wrestling competition and begins the games as hot favourite and the current gold medal holder. It goes without saying that a sportsman is nothing without a quality coach and trainer to advice them, and sure enough this Olympic team will be accompanied by 7 eminent Lviv trainers incvluding the nation’s chief boxing coach Dmytro Sosnovskyi, boxing corner man Valentyn Ostoyanov, archery coach Sergiy Antonov, fencing coach Andriy Orlikovskyi and shooting coaches Anatolyi Kuksa and Stepan Starinskyi.
Fans of the Olympic sporting spectacle can catch up with the progress of Lviv’s athletes at sports bars around Lviv throughout August, while for successful performers a grand reception awaits in Lviv in early September.