For Ukrainian competitors, Invictus Games provide a break from the harsh realities of war

Until a few days ago, Volodymyr Musyak was on the front lines defending Ukraine from Russia’s devastating assault on his nation. Now he’s preparing to pick up a bow and arrow in the Invictus Games archery competition.

The sporting event for active service personnel and veterans who are ill, injured or wounded opens Saturday and ends April 22 in this Dutch city that calls itself the global center of peace and justice.

Those concepts seem a world away to the team of 19 athletes from Ukraine and their supporters as they settle in The Hague for the games.

a close up shot of an athlete in an Team Ukraine Invictus Games unfirom looking towards the camera
Volodymyr Musyak was on the front lines defending Ukraine from Russia’s deadly invasion only days before this photo was taken.AP: Peter Dejong

Musyak, who suffers from concussion caused by a mine blast, is competing in events including archery but has to prepare without his coach, Dmytro Sydoruk, who died in the war.

“On the eve of our departure, he died,” Musyak said.

“Whether military or civilian, every loss for us, especially when our children are killed, when civilians are killed, when women are killed, is an irreparable loss.”

Team Ukraine Invictus Games athletes are shown with crutchs and in wheelchairs inside a gymnasium waiting
Ukrainian team members face an emotional adjustment at the games. AP: Peter Dejong

Ukraine’s Invictus Games National Coordinator Oksana Horbach said one of the team, Taira Paievska, did not even make the trip after being taken hostage by Russian forces in Mariupol where she worked as a paramedic.

“I think that emotionally it’s something that requires time … because we come from a very disturbed area as we come from the areas where the actual killings every day are happening, the shelling, the bombing, we hear sirens every day,” said

Four Ukrainians who were not due to participate in the games but were active in the worldwide community of injured servicemen and women died in March, two while on active duty and two in rocket attacks, Invictus Games organizers said on their website.

Two Team Ukraine members sit on the edge of a garden bed talking to fellow members sitting in wheelchairs outside
Ukrainian politicians say it was a difficult choice for the athletes to leave the war to compete.AP: Peter Dejong

Pavlo Kovalskyi, who is participating in rowing, archery, wheelchair basketball and possibly also sitting volleyball, said that, as well as competing, he wants to spread the word about the harsh realities of war in his homeland.

Traveling to the games gives the 31-year-old a chance “better to tell, convey information to the audience, our friends, our new acquaintances, just fellow athletes, what is happening now,” he said.

Ukrainian Minister for Veteran Affairs Yuliia Laputina agreed that the competitors decided to take part as a way of spreading the word.

Zelenskyy urges the team on

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, arrive at the Invictus Games venue with people watching behind a white fence
Team Ukraine athletes drew cheers upon their arrival, as did Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex.AP: Peter Dejong

Members of the Ukrainian team drew big cheers on Friday evening at a reception also attended by Britain’s Prince Harry — whose brainchild the games were — and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged the team on via a video link after their arrival on Thursday.

“Victory is important for us, it is important to prove that we are all unconquered,” he told the participants.

The Ukrainians are among some 500 competitors from 20 nations participating in the Invictus Games.

Russia has never taken part in any of the previous games and does not have a team in The Hague.

This year’s games were delayed twice by the coronavirus pandemic. The first edition of the games was held in London in 2014, followed by Orlando in 2016, Toronto in 2017 and Sydney in 2018.

two children with lanyards around their necks are seen together as a group of women in Ukraine uniforms walk past
The games provide a brief respite for the families of the athletes as well.AP: Peter Dejong

Service personnel compete in athletics, archery, cycling, indoor rowing, powerlifting, sitting volleyball, swimming, wheelchair basketball, and wheelchair rugby as well as a driving challenge.

For the Ukrainians, the games are a brief respite from the grim realities of life in wartime and an opportunity to highlight the plight of their nation.

“The death, the destruction, the rapes, everything, this is something that my competitors and team staff members experience every day,” Horbach said.

“So it needs to be heard, it needs to be told. It is very important for us that we, as Ukrainians, have that voice, have a platform to voice who we are, what we do and what we experience every single day since February 24,” when the Russian invasion started.

Team Ukraine athletes lay down on chairs at a desk, one reading her iphone while the other looks off to the left
Ukrainian team members say their minds are on their homeland. AP: Peter Dejong

And while Musyak is competing in The Hague, his mind is elsewhere.

“We are only the second day here, we got here from the front line and, until now, I’m mentally with my brothers in arms, of course,” he said.


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