A recap of Team Ukraine’s performance
Amid rampant government corruption, a foundering economy bereft of badly needed foreign assistance and investment, and an ongoing, costly war with Russia and insurgent rebels, Ukraine nevertheless sent 33 athletes to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics. It bears repeating: to be competitive on the world’s ultimate sports stage, major financial resources are required to recruit, train and develop Olympic athletes. Costs include scouting, housing, equipment, food, coaching, practice venues, travel and medical care, to name just a few.
Varying reports have stated the Ukrainian government allocated between $4.5 million and $9.6 million to train athletes for this year’s Olympics. The biathletes and freestyle skier Oleksandr Abramenko formed the elite group of athletes, received 50 percent of the training budget. The remaining one-half was split on the other two other groups, leading and promising athletes. Team Ukraine’s top performers in PyeongChang were gold medalist Abramenko and the biathletes. This was money well spent.
Given Ukraine’s dire predicament over the last four-plus years, realistic expectations must be tempered when it comes to assessing a Winter Olympics performance. To add another perspective, 92 countries took part in the Games, of which 22 won gold medals and 30 won some kind of medal. Ukraine’s lone gold medal must be viewed as a most positive achievement. Only 18 countries won a gold medal.
Here’s a brief recap of Team Ukraine’s performances by sport.
Oleksandr Abramenko’s gold medal aerial acrobatics on skis shocked the freestyle skiing world. The four-time Olympian made Ukraine relevant while becoming the first-ever Ukrainian male athlete to win a Winter Olympics individual gold medal. This could go down as the highlight of the year in Ukrainian sports.
The biathletes did not perform up to their lofty expectations, failing to win even one medal. Dmytro Pidruchnyi finished 21st (out of 87) in sprint and the mixed relay team was seventh (out of 20). Vita Semerenko performed best with two solid showings (14th of 87 in sprint and 18th of 58 in pursuit), while Yulia Dzhima was right behind her (20th out of 87) in the individual competition. The alpine and cross country skiers did their best as did the figure skaters, lugers and Nordic combined skier. Vladyslav Herashkevych ranked 12th out of 30 in skeleton.
Savchenko finally wins gold medal
The fifth time was the charm for 34-year-old Aljona (Olena) Savchenko. Competing in her fifth Winter Olympiad, with her third partner, she finally won her first gold medal. Performing to music by Armand Amar, Savchenko and partner Bruno Massot (originally of France) pranced and soared to a record 159.31 points in their free skate. Their total of 235.90 points jumped them from fourth place to first, topping China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong by less than half a point.
Pairs figure skater Savchenko was born in Ukraine in 1984 and made her Olympic debut in 2002 representing her native land with partner Stanislav Morozov. The duo came in 15th place at the Salt Lake City Games.
In 2003, she moved to Germany and competed in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Olympic Games for Germany with new partner Robin Szolkowy. At age 30, after winning her second bronze medal in Sochi, most assumed her career was winding down. Instead she found a new partner in Massot, rededicated herself to hard training and made the trip to South Korea determined to make this Olympics her best ever.
After the first round of the competition, the pair stood in fourth place. Most experts deemed their chances for a medal slim. When they arrived for the second round, they were both determined to make the impossible happen.
Savchenko stuck a huge triple-twist lift to open their program, getting so high it seemed she would scrape the ceiling. The couple was perfect on a throw-triple-flip. They followed with a gorgeous combination and a side-by-side triple toe in such perfect unison that it drew gasps from the crowd and a huge cheer from German great Katerina Witt, who was in the arena.
The performance was a sweet vindication for the German team, favored for gold upon winning the Grand Prix Final, but whose error on a jump in the short program left them playing catch-up with the field.
They caught up and zoomed right by, although they had to wait anxiously as three more pairs took the ice. The competition was tight, but the gold medal was assured when Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov struggled.
The victory was the first gold medal in pairs figure skating for Germany since 1952 and tied Savchenko for the most medals (three) ever awarded to a figure skater.
Gold medal profile: Oleksandr Abramenko
Oleksandr Abramenko was born on May 4, 1988, in Pervomaiskyi, Kharkiv Oblast. Abramenko’s father, Volodymyr, is an ex-soccer player who played for several amateur teams in Ukraine. His first international competition was the 2005 World Championships in Finland where he placed 25th. He has participated in six Worlds and his best showing was No. 5 in Japan (2009). He made his World Cup debut in 2006 in Canada where he finished 18th. At age 18 he competed at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy where he did not advance, placing 27th in the qualifying round. He won a silver medal at the 2006 World Junior Championship held in Russia. He achieved his first World Cup Top-10 with a 10th-place finish in Lake Placid, N.Y. Abramenko made the Olympics team again in 2010, placing 24th in aerials, qualifying in Vancouver, but once again failing to advance.
Abramenko’s first World Cup podium was February 2012 in Belarus, where he won silver, behind fellow Ukrainian Stanislav Kravchuk. Later that year, Abramenko won bronze in Norway. At the Sochi Games in 2014 he reached the finals, placing sixth. Abramenko won his first gold medal in the 2015 World Cup in Belarus, becoming the first Ukrainian to win a World Cup medal in aerials or any other freestyle discipline. His results in the 2015-2016 season were fifth, third, third, second, 13th and fifth – he started to show consistency in performance.
He suffered cruciate ligament damage and a torn meniscus while practicing on water – the knee injury kept him sidelined for the 2016-2017 season. He returned for the 2017-2018 year, finishing 21st in Beijing and then captured his eighth podium in Lake Placid, N.Y., winning silver. This showing earned him a spot in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Peace professed at podium
It was a demonstration of true sportsmanship when Ukrainian Oleksandr Abramenko and Olympic Athlete of Russia Ilia Burov shared the podium after winning medals. Politicians were shamed and political disagreements tabled when the two claimed their rewards in the nerve-racking aerial freestyle skiing discipline first introduced into the Olympics in 1994.
At the medal ceremony, both men climbed to the top of the platform, leaving silver medal winner Jia Zongyang by himself. Since Russian athletes were banned from displaying the Russian flag by the International Olympic Committee, Abramenko and Burov stood behind the Ukrainian flag, spread out by the Ukrainian. A politically defiant hug between the two sportsmen ensued.
In an interview with Russian outlet Sport-Express, Burov opined that conflicting political issues should not be part of sports. “We are friends. We talk with each other constantly. Politics has nothing to do with us. Belarusians, Ukrainians, Russians are all friends. We are all Slavs,” Burov said, adding that his and Abramenko’s success is proof of the strength of the Slavic school of freestyle.
Abramenko’s fiancée, fellow freestyle skier Alexandra Orlova, was born in Moscow and competed for OAR at these Olympics. She finished eighth in the ladies’ aerial final.
Abramenko’s gold-medal win in Olympic freestyle skiing rankled the country of Belarus, whose reigning champion did not qualify for the final. This result meant Belarus failed to secure a medal in the event for the first time since 1994.
In response, Belarusian President Alyaksander Lukashenka lodged a formal complaint with the International Olympic Committee, accusing the judges of unfairly eliminating Belarusian skier Anton Kushnir from the final.
Lukashenka referred to the scoring decision as a disgrace and explained how he raised the alarm with his Foreign Affairs Ministry to send a government telegram to IOC President Thomas Bach.
Kushnir, 33, won a gold medal for Belarus at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and was very close to qualifying on February 17, posting a score just 0.45 points behind the sixth and final qualifier to the final.
Men’s biathlon relay team finishes ninth
Dmytro Pidruchnyi, Artem Pryma, Vladimir Semakov and Serhiy Semenov finished in ninth place (out of 18 teams) in the men’s biathlon team 4×7.5 km relay (1:20:17.3 seconds), having missed 11 shots. Ukraine finished 5:00.8 seconds behind the gold medal winners, Sweden. Norway won silver and Germany won bronze.