With their country torn by civil strife, the women of the Ukraine 4x6km biathlon team paid tribute in the best way they could: by winning gold.
Ukraine's four relay members led from the beginning of the race and finished in a total of 1 hour, 10 minutes, 2.5 seconds. The team outlasted Russia by only 26.4 seconds, with Norway taking the bronze.
"When I was on the podium, I couldn't stop crying," relay team member Valj Semerenko told reporters immediately afterward. "I tried to calm down and was trying to hide it behind my skis. They were tears of happiness — not only mine, but of the whole country, our team."
The victory marks the first gold medal for Ukraine in the Winter Olympics since Oksana Baiul won in figure skating in 1994 at Lillehammer.
Several Ukrainian athletes withdrew from the Games as a sign of solidarity with the protesters in Kiev. The International Olympic Committee had previously forbidden Ukrainian athletes from wearing black armbands to honor the work of the protesters, saying that it was too overt of a political message at what is supposed to be a politics-free Games. With Kiev less than 1,000 miles away, and host nation Russia actively involved in peace negotiations for Ukraine, the idea that the IOC or anyone involved in the Games could simply turn away from the violence in the Ukraine seems shortsighted at best.
"We discussed about [making] a statement to the nation," said Sergey Bubka, head of the Ukrainian Olympic Committee. "We needed this moment. We dedicate this victory to the Ukrainian nation.”
"Before the race, people wrote us many messages and wishes, waiting for victory," one of the team members, Olena Pidhrushna, told reporters in Sochi. "Until the very last moment, even this morning I read my emails, saying like, 'Girls, start and win for us all, for Ukraine.' We are so happy that the people of Ukraine are happy back home and that something good happened for our country."
Ukraine, with a population of 46 million, achieved independence from the Soviet Union 22 years ago but has never in its history endured a conflict this bloody. The country is suffering through riots that have killed dozens in protests over charges of government corruption. Ukraine's president and opposition leaders have just signed a peace accord, but there is deep suspicion on both sides, and among observers, about whether that peace will last. Russia declined to sign off on the accord, and there is concern that Russia could use pressure to undo the cease-fire.
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