Five Ukrainian athletes spoke at an emotional press conference on Sunday about their experiences competing at The World Games, staying in Birmingham and suffering in the wake of the war taking place in their home country.
The conference started with a solemn address from Mayor Randall Woodfin. “I stand before you in solidarity and support for Ukraine,” Woodfin said to the athletes and their teams. The mayor, who was sporting a Ukrainian shirt to match those that the athletes were wearing, congratulated the athletes on their success on the field and made note of the exceptional ovation they received at the opening ceremony of The World Games. “It’s only fitting that only three days into the actual sporting events … the Ukraine medal count is now seventeen, I believe the largest of all other countries.”
The World Games 2022 CEO Nick Sellers and Honorary Consul to Ukraine from Alabama Scotty Colson gave their own words for the athletes from Ukraine. Sellers’, Colson’s and Woodfin’s addresses all shared a common idea: these athletes have undergone great difficulty and struggle to compete in The World Games, and their efforts have not gone unnoticed.
“What people feel regarding us when they hear that we are from Ukraine, we can literally feel the support that they feel,” said Stanislav Horuna, a silver medalist in karate who auctioned off his Olympic gold medal at the start of the war in Ukraine to donate the proceeds to his country’s cause. For Horuna, the divide between sports and politics is similar to that of church and state. “I told publicly that sport is out of politics, and I still think so. But here we are at the sporting event, and we are talking about the politics.”
Anzhelika Terliuga, a competitor in karate, continued Horuna’s message of thanks for the overwhelming support from the Birmingham community. “It was even from the girl who was working and helping us in the hotel where we had training camp. So open-minded and friendly … everything she was doing, it was a big pleasure.” Terliuga became impassioned as she spoke on her experience at home. “You don’t know what to do. You’re in a panic. You are like in a bad movie, and I would be happy if it would be a bad movie but it’s our — sorry for these words — fucking real life.”
Terliuga won the gold medal in her competition at The World Games but said she would give it up if it meant an end to the war. “All these medals, now it’s nothing for me… I’m just glad that I could bring something really good, a little positive thing to my family and to my country, but I could give everything what I have just to stop it.” She expressed worry for her mother and two-year-old sister, who live uncomfortably close to southern hotspots near Moldova.
Sumo wrestler Alina Duzhenko spoke through stifled tears via translator. “It’s a big honor, a pleasure to represent our beautiful independent country here, and our sumo team trained a lot to be here.” Duzhenko is competing in her fifth World Games this year. Her hometown of Chernihiv was among the first to be ravaged by Russian attacks.
The World Games has pledged one dollar from every ticket and merchandise sale to the Sports Committee of Ukraine. The funds will be used to help rebuild sports infrastructure in Chernihiv and other areas that have suffered severe damage from the war.