December 1, 2023


Ukrainian athletes have been swapping their racquets and gloves for Kalashnikovs and body armor.

While more than 2 million people have now fled war-torn Ukraine amid Russia’s lethal invasion, some famous sporting faces have returned home to fight on the front lines against the Russian invaders.

Kyiv’s fearsome mayor, Vitaly Klitschko, was already there, of course. Before his career in politics, Klitschko — like his brother Wladimir — was a world heavyweight boxing champion and now he’s taken up arms. The giant ex-sportsman has also worked hard to keep morale high among Kyiv’s residents, even attending the wedding of a local Kyiv territorial defense couple on Saturday and kissing the bride’s hand for luck, as Russia tightens the squeeze on the capital city.

And the Klitschkos aren’t the only Ukrainian boxers fighting out of the blue (and yellow) corner.

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Vasiliy Lomachenko reportedly returned to Ukraine from Greece in order to defend Odesa, while reigning heavyweight world champion Oleksandr Usyk, who defeated British fighter Anthony Joshua in London last year, also signed up to the army, saying he had “no fear.”

Though boxers may be more naturally disposed toward fighting, they’ve been joined by a host of other sports stars as the Russian bombardment leaves devastation across the country.

Sergiy Stakhovsky, a Ukrainian tennis player who beat Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2013, also left his family in Hungary and signed up to the territorial army, saying, “I pretty much hope that I will not have to use the gun, but if I have to, I have to.”

Winter athletes are joining the fight too: Biathlete and skier Dmytro Mazurchuk has taken up arms, as has Dmytro Pidruchny, who competed in the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics, to defend his hometown of Ternopil in western Ukraine. At least one Ukrainian athlete has already paid the ultimate price though: Yevhen Malyshev, a 19-year-old former Ukrainian biathlete, was killed during the first week of combat, according to the International Biathlon Union.

Ballet dancers are also entering the fray. Lesya Vorotnyk, a principal dancer at Kyiv’s National Opera, was pictured holding a Kalashnikov and wearing military gear last week — while another lead dancer, Oleksiy Potiomkin, has also joined the fight in the capital.

Russian rebels

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops move across Ukraine, Russian teams have been ostracized by the international sporting community — while individual athletes wrestle with what messages to display to the world.

Some have staked out a clear stance against the war, while others have taken more muted positions as the Russian bombardment continues.

In the more outspoken column, Russian tennis player Andrey Rublev — the men’s world No. 7 — wrote on a camera lens “no war please” after a semifinal in Dubai shortly after the start of the war. That message was echoed by Dynamo Moscow footballer Fedor Smolov on Instagram, whose blacked-out “No to war” post, accompanied by a Ukrainian flag, quickly went viral.

But men’s tennis No. 1 and recent Australian Open runner-up Daniil Medvedev released a more cryptic statement on his Instagram, asking for “peace in the world, peace between countries,” while the top stars in Russia’s two most popular sports — football and hockey — also released stifled anti-war statements.

Russian national football team captain Artem Dzyuba cautiously wrote last week on his Instagram that “war is frightful” — but added that he is “proud to be Russian. And I don’t understand why sportsmen have to suffer now.” Alexander Ovechkin, meanwhile, who is considered Russia’s best hockey player and a historically vocal supporter of Putin, called the conflict a “hard situation for both side [sic] and everything” and asked for “no more war.”

Some, though, have even come out in full-throated support of Putin’s war. At an event in Doha last weekend, Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak taped the letter Z — which has become synonymous with support for the Russian invasion after the letter was spotted on its tanks in Ukraine — on his top after winning a bronze medal. Despite facing a long ban and the prospect of having his medal removed, Kuliak told Russian broadcaster RT he had no regrets.


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