By Amy Tennery and Nathan Frandino
EUGENE, Ore. (Reuters) – On his first day at the World Athletics Championships, the acting president of Ukraine’s track and field federation Yevhen Pronin said he experienced something remarkable: a group of Americans trying to buy him lunch.
As U.S. relations with Moscow fray to their worst point in decades over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian athletes and officials say they feel at home in Eugene, Oregon, where they can spot their flag around the quiet college town.
“Six or five persons come to us and ask ‘Can we pay for your lunch?’ I don’t understand what’s happened,” Pronin told reporters on Wednesday. “Somebody tells me, it’s support, it’s normal.”
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, calling it a “special military operation” to rid Ukraine of fascists, an assertion the Ukrainian government and its Western allies said was a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war.
While cheers of “USA!” ricocheted through Hayward Field as the U.S. men swept the 100 metres podium, another sentiment is well represented among the host crowd: support for Ukraine.
“You can see that (there are) a lot of Ukrainian flags in the windows in Eugene but it’s not Ukrainians,” said Pronin, who is a soldier in the Ukrainian army and spent four months on the front lines before travelling to the World Championships.
Russian and Belarusian athletes are absent from the biennial event, the first held on U.S. soil, after World Athletics in March banned them for the foreseeable future.
Pronin, who plans to return to the front line for three weeks before travelling to the European Championships, said this is the smallest delegation the country has ever sent, with just 22 athletes.
High jumper Yaroslava Mahuchikh, who collected her second straight silver in Tuesday’s final, was forced to flee her home in Dnipro after the invasion, sheltering in a cellar before travelling for three days by car to reach Serbia.
“I want to say to our Ukrainian people that we are so strong and now we continue to fight when everyone does not believe that we can do it,” she said.
She and her team mate Iryna Gerashchenko, who finished fourth, enjoyed broad support among the home fans.
“When we hear on the stadium before… the attempts, the name of our athletes, I think that I stay not in America, I stay in Ukraine,” said Pronin.
Competing in her fifth worlds in the 400 metres hurdles, Ukrainian Anna Ryzhykova said she has received encouragement outside the stadium as well.
“‘Go Ukraine’ or ‘Ukraine, we believe you will win,’ that is what I hear on the streets every single day,” she told reporters. “It’s really very touching.”
(Reporting by Amy Tennery and Nathan Frandino in Eugene, Oregon; Editing by Toby Davis)