It was just over a week ago that Norwegian athletes were winning medals at the Winter Olympics in Sochi and the German president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was praising Russian leaders for hosting them, claiming that “we saw the face of a new Russia, efficient and friendly, patriotic and open to the world.” Today, with the Paralympics due to begin later this week, such lofty words seem hollow indeed given the uproar over Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.
Now IOC President Thomas Bach’s own country’s leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is desperately trying along with other EU and NATO leaders to avoid what some fear could be an all-out war in Europe, after Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government in Moscow sent heavily armed Russian military forces into Ukraine. Norwegian leaders have joined NATO and many other countries in condemning the Russians’ attempt to intimidate Ukrainians, along with Putin’s threats to spark more violence. He and his government colleagues claim they must protect Russians living in Ukraine, along with their military bases in Crimea, after Ukraine’s Russian-friendly and elected government was toppled and its former leader fled to Moscow.
The contrast of the Olympic ideals flaunted in Sochi and the reality of how the Russian leaders are now behaving could hardly be greater, with “the modern Russia” portraying an entirely different “face” just as the Paralympics are set to get underway. Norway has a large team of athletes set to take part in them as well, and an uneasiness has settled over preparations for what is supposed to be the most important competition of their athletic careers.
“It’s certainly no fun to see that there is conflict in the area,” Birgit Skarstein, one of Norway’s major cross-country skiing hopes in the Paralympics due to start this coming weekend, told newspaper Aftenposten on Monday. Skarstein spoke from her training base in the Swiss Alps, part of efforts to get acclimated to the high elevations in Sochi.
“We are of course talking about this (the Russian escalation of military intervention in Ukraine and Norway’s decision to join international condemnation of it),” Skarstein said. “We’re not cut off from the rest of the world.” She nonetheless felt sure that the Paralympics would proceed as planned, and she personally said she felt safe traveling to Sochi, even though Russia already has been accused by Ukrainian authorities of declaring war.
Trying to separate sports from politics
“It’s a safe place, regardless of the conflict,” Skarstein said of Sochi. “Our focus should be on sports.” She claimed she wasn’t indifferent to the conflict, but said she hopes the Paralympics might contribute “something positive” to a difficult situation.
Inge Andersen, secretary general of Norway’s national confederation of sports (Norges Idrettsforbundet), has also registered Russia’s escalation of military intervention in what some consider an occupation of Ukrainian territory at a particularly vulnerable time for the country. Andersen said, however, there was currently no talk of refusing to send Norway’s athletes to the Paralympics.
“As far as security and threats go, we follow the assessment of the Sochi 2014 organization,” Andersen told Aftenposten. “They say that the threat level is considerably lower during the Paralympics than during the Olympics.” And Andersen distanced himself as much as possible from current political tensions over how the government of the country hosting the Paralympics is behaving.
“I don’t think I’ll get involved in any political evaluations,” Andersen said. “This is a national crisis in Ukraine in many areas, and it’s also an international, major political situation with many players. We, as an athletics organization, deal with sports, while others can deal with politics.”
He added that his sports federation will abide by Norwegian foreign policy, Norwegian authorities and the security evaluations of the national police intelligence agency PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste). As of Monday there was no official word of any planned withdrawal from the Paralympics for security or political reasons.