SOCHI, Russia – The import of the deadly conflict in Kiev, only a two-hour flight from here along the Black Sea, was underscored Thursday when at least one of the 43 Ukrainian athletes reportedly withdrew from the Olympic Games.
"I believe some of them have decided to return home," said IOC spokesman Mark Adams, "and [Ukraine Olympic Committee president] Sergey Bubka has said he absolutely respects every individual's right to make their own decision."
Some of the Ukrainian athletes had already completed their events, but Alpine skier Bogdana Matsotska withdrew before Friday's slalom – her best event – as a show of solidarity with protesters in Kiev. Matsotska and her father and coach, Oleg Matsotskyy, were trying to arrange for a flight to return home.
On his Facebook page, Matsotskyy announced: "As a protest against lawless actions made towards protesters, the lack of responsibility from the side of the president and his lackey government, we refuse further performance at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games."
Some members of the Ukrainian delegation held a moment of silence for the dozens of Ukrainians who had lost their lives in the protests, and black ribbons were added to national flags hanging from the balconies at the Olympic village. Ukrainian city Lviv is bidding to play host to the 2022 Winter Games.
On a human level, the violence is deeply tragic, with the world seeing horrifying photos of bodies lying in the streets. "There will be many dead today," one man in Kiev told the New York Times as he watched stretchers pass by. On a political level, the crisis could not be worse for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose largely successful Games are now being overshadowed by instability not far from where the Olympics are being held.
"This is not the timing Putin would have wanted," said NYU professor and global affairs expert Mark Galeotti in an interview with Yahoo Sports. "Who is talking about Sochi now?"
Galeotti called the Kiev protests "an embarrassment for Putin," as the Russian president has aligned himself with Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych despite the elected leader's corroding reputation both within his borders and internationally.
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Western leaders, including President Barack Obama, have escalated the harsh dialogue as the future of one of Russia's neighboring nations hangs in the balance. "We have been watching very carefully," Obama said during a visit to Mexico, "and we expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protesters. There will be consequences if people step over the line."
Sport, meant to bring the world together, means precious little now.
"It's as if you spend $50 billion on a party," Galeotti said, "and everyone is outside looking at the car accident on your front lawn."
Putin's attention must now be spent on monitoring a worsening problem and fending off Western allegations that, in the words of a State Department official quoted by the New York Times, his government has "not been transparent" about its goals in the Ukraine.
The message of openness that the Olympics are supposed to convey has been replaced, at least temporarily, with the Western belief that Putin is aligned with a leader who is viciously cracking down on a desire for a stronger voice in government.
The crisis is not sudden – it has roots in Yanukovych's decision late last year to turn down closer economic ties with the European Union – but the bloodshed is. Photos of chaos and death in the streets of a major European city have Western leaders troubled and onlookers around the world aghast. The split within the nation is somewhat familiar to those who have watched the disintegration of the Soviet Union over the past generation: the Western portion of the Ukraine is much more sympathetic to the E.U., while the East is closer to Russian influence. Russian is widely spoken in the Ukraine and Russians make up a sizeable minority of the population.
The optics here at the Olympics are made worse by reports that the IOC forbade the Ukrainian athletes to wear black armbands during Closing Ceremonies this weekend. Adams, the IOC spokesman, denied this. Sochi has approved a request for demonstration related to the Ukrainian protests in a zone eight miles east of the venues.
Still, the timing of the protests is especially poignant considering this is the 20th anniversary of Oksana Baiul becoming the first figure skater to win gold representing Ukraine at the Winter Olympics. Baiul returned to a nation in 1994 that was newly independent from the Soviet Union where she was born, but also torn apart by the quest for independence. There was so little financial support for figure skating that athletes and coaches had to resurface the ice by hand.
Twenty years later, on the day figure skating gold will be awarded, Baiul's nation is undergoing another painful test. And some Ukrainians have left the Games early.
It is Galeotti's belief that the current crisis could have been quelled or even averted if Yunakovych handled the matter more urgently and carefully weeks ago.
"Now," he said, "it is probably too late."
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