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

Sport

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 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.”