By Lori Ewing
(Reuters) – Hurdler Anna Ryzhykova, one of an estimated 40,000 athletes across all sports forced to flee Ukraine to train abroad after Russia’s invasion, says she is fighting for her homeland in the best way she can – with her results on the track.
The Olympic bronze medallist has already qualified for the World Athletics Championships in August and the renewal of the Ukraine Solidarity Fund, announced by the sport’s global governing body on Wednesday, will help ease her road there.
The World Athletics backed fund distributed $220,000 to more than 100 Ukraine athletes in 2022.
Ryzhykova fled her eastern Ukraine home of Dnipro within weeks of Russia invading the country in February last year in what Moscow calls a “special operation.” Her coach Volodymyr Kravchenko joined Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces.
“Every Ukrainian stood up to defend our homeland … as is the case in sport,” Ryzhykova told a small group of reporters on a call from Fort Worth, Texas, where she is temporarily living and training. “By participating in competitions, we do not let the world forget about such a country as Ukraine.
“I continue to cry and worry every day about my friends, my family. But I still continue to train and still continue to show good results to help my country.”
The 33-year-old Ryzhykova was fifth in the 400 metres hurdles at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and won bronze at the 2012 London Olympics in the 4×400 relay.
According to international athlete-led organisation Global Athlete, since the invasion 343 sport facilities have been destroyed, leaving an estimated 140,000 young athletes without facilities, while 40,000 athletes are training abroad.
The figures cover all sports.
Ryzhykova spent many weeks each year training at a top athletics facility in Bakhmut.
Russian forces have been waging an intense campaign for months to seize control of the small city and secure Moscow its first battlefield victory in more than half a year.
“Now it is destroyed, and the city is under fire for the last many months,” said Ryzhykova.
The financial help to train and compete abroad is crucial since “sports bases have been destroyed, there are constant threats of rocket attacks, we live in fear,” she added.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said last month that 228 Ukrainian athletes had been killed in the war.
Ukraine’s high jumper Kateryna Tabashnyk dedicated her bronze medal at this month’s European Indoor Championships to her mother, who was killed in a Russian strike in August, saying: “This medal carries all my pain and sorrow.”
Ryzhykova, who also fears children will never know the joy of sports having lived so much of their young lives in bomb shelters, said she hopes no one ever feels her sense of despair.
“You forget about your career, about your dreams and you think about how to survive and how to help your family and friends to survive, and the World Athletics Solidarity Fund really saved our athletes’ careers, and gave us a chance to fight for our country in our own way,” she said.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is facing a major backlash after opening the door for athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete at next year’s Paris Olympics.
Belarus has been a key staging area for Russia’s invasion.
“They’re killing my friends, my friends’ relatives, many of my friends go to war, also a number of athletes were killed by Russians,” Ryzhykova said. “I can’t even imagine how to be near the person who supports the war or keeps silent.”
Ryzhykova added that she would support a Ukraine boycott of the Paris Games, but hopes the IOC bans Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing there instead.
The Russian Athletics Federation (RAF) has been banned from athletics since 2015 as a result of the country’s widespread doping, although some athletes from Russia were allowed to compete at the last two Summer Olympics as neutrals.
(Reporting by Lori Ewing in Manchester, England; Editing by Ken Ferris)