Recalling Ukraine’s participation in Winter Olympic Games since 1994
The XXIV Winter Olympic Games will start in Beijing, China on Feb. 4, with the Ukrainian national team competing in the world’s premier winter sports competition for the eighth time since the Lillehammer 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway. Here’s what Ukrainian fans remember about previous Winter Olympic Games, and the Ukrainians who brought home medals.
Ukrainians competed at the Winter Olympic Games long before the country gained independence. The first Ukrainian Winter Olympian is considered to be Stepan Vitkovsky from Lviv. Better known as a footballer, he came to the first Winter Olympic Games in Chamonix, France in 1924, as part of the Polish national team. He took part in the ski marathon (50 kilometers), and came ... last.
The first Ukrainian medalist was Oleg Goncharenko, an ice-skater from Kharkiv. In 1956, in Cortina d'Ampezzo, in Italy, he won two bronze medals at the distances of 5,000 and 10,000 meters. At those games, Goncharenko was the standard-bearer of the Soviet Union’s national team.
As part of the Soviet biathlon relay team, Ivan Biakov from Kyiv won gold medals at the Winter Olympic Games twice – in 1972 and 1976. At the 1992 Winter Olympic Gamed in Albertville, France, Viktor Petrenko from Odesa won first place in the single figure skating competition, while Oleksii Zhytnik from Kyiv was a member of the gold-winning United Hockey Team
Ukrainians first competed under their own flag at the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway.
These Winter Olympic Games were the first to be held in an intercalary year other than the corresponding Summer Olympics. And for the first time, the teams of newly independent states formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union took part.
Independent Ukraine won its first Olympic medal on Feb. 23, 1994 in the biathlon sprint race. Canadian Myriam Bedard was first, only 1.1 seconds ahead of Svitlana Paramygina from Belarus, while Ukrainian Valentyna Tserbe from Pryluky finished third, only 0.1 (!) seconds behind the Belarusian.
These three girls were already preparing for medal ceremony when a little-known biathlete from Kazakhstan, Inna Sheshkil, appeared at the stadium, competing under one of the last starting numbers. In terms of speed, she matched the leaders, but a few meters before the finish line she fell and came only fourth.
In an interview in 2010, Tserbe recalled that she had competed on skis borrowed from her teammate Nina Lemesh. “At that time, there were not enough skis, wax, there was no masseur, no doctor. Myriam Bedard brought with her a personal massage therapist, her husband was with her at the competition, and even her own chef. Only accurate shooting, got us the medal,” said Tserbe. Her relay colleague Elena Petrova admitted in the documentary “Our 1990s” that there weren’t enough coaches either: “Our coach also worked on the adjustment of weapons, so we worked on the shooting range with high quality.”
After the end of her career, Valentyna Tserbe-Nesina worked on Pryluky City Council, was the administrator of the local football team. Currently, she comments on the performances of Ukrainian biathletes in social networks.
The attention of the press (from all over the world was attracted to the women's figure skating competitions at the Winter Olympic Games when world champion Oksana Baiul from Dnipropetrovsk took part – and not only for sporting reasons: A few weeks before the Olympic Games, a fan of U.S. star Tonya Harding attacked her competitor in the national selection, Nancy Kerrigan, and broke her leg with a telescopic baton. Nancy was able to recover in time for the competition.
Harding also took part in the Olympic Games, despite allegations being made against her relating to the attack. (The story is told in the 2017 movie “I, Tonya,” starring Margot Robbie.)
But on the ice, no one could overshadow Baiul. The 16-year-old Ukrainian was in second place after the short program. Before the free program, she was injured when she collided with German figure skater Tanya Shevchenko. With the help of painkillers, Baiul performed all elements almost flawlessly, knowing, moreover, that Kerrigan had replaced one of her triple jumps with a double.
At the end of the performance, Baiul took a risk by making a combination instead of a single jump. The judges thought for a long time how to evaluate the program - and finally, by five votes against four, they gave preference to the athlete from Ukraine.
The awards ceremony started late: the organizers did not have a recording of the Ukrainian anthem. In addition, the flag of Ukraine was hung upside down on the flagpole.
After the Olympic Games, Baiul moved to the United States, participated in ice and television shows, and then the police stopped her for drunk driving, which forced the champion to undergo treatment in a rehabilitation clinic. “The Olympic crown is worn throughout life. Sometimes the legs give way because of it,” Oksana Baiul said in the 2010s, saying she had been leading a sober lifestyle for a very long time.
In 2012, she accused her former coach Galina Zmievskaya of stealing royalties. Oksana Baiul filed a claim for compensation with a U.S. Court against ... Ukraine. Appeals continued until 2020, when the figure skater's claims were finally rejected.
In 2021, Baiul announced the renunciation of her Ukrainian citizenship on Instagram.
The XXVIII Olympic Games were held in the Japanese city of Nagano. For the first time, athletes competed in snowboarding, and the National Hockey League (NHL) interrupted the season so that the best hockey players on the planet could go to Japan.
On the first competitive day of the Olympic Games, Feb. 9, Ukraine won a medal in the biathlon. Olena Petrova, 25, came second in the individual race, losing the gold to Ekaterina Dafovska from Bulgaria.
Four years earlier, in this discipline, Petrova failed to finish because she got lost on the course and was disqualified.
While Tserbe in Lillehammer won a medal on someone else's skis, Petrova at the 1998 Games used a teammate’s ski poles. “The poles were at the entrance to the servicemen's house. I had to run to the start, I started before Olena Zubrilova. It so happened that I accidentally took Zubrilova's poles.
She is four centimeters shorter than me, and so her poles are shorter. I don’t know, for sure, how Olena then ran, but after that situation, I decided to shorten my poles to the size that Zubrilova competed with. I realized that they were convenient for me,” the winner told sport.ua.
Petrova competed until 2007, then became a coach, and later headed the Sumy branch of the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine.
Several other members of the Ukrainian team just missed out on winning medals. Skier Iryna Taranenko-Terelia took fourth place in the 15 km race and pursuit. Four Ukrainian women reached the finals of the freestyle competition in ski acrobatics, with best of them, Tatiana Kozachenko, coming fourth.
The 2002 Winter Olympic Games were held in Salt Lake City, Utah, United States. Never before was a games hit by so many scandals. Champion skier Johann Muehlegg from Spain was stripped of his medal for doping, and Russian athletes were disqualified for the same reason. Russian criminals were accused of bribing the judges of figure skating competitions – and as a result, two sets of gold medals in the sports pairs had to be awarded.
For the first time, Ukraine failed to bring home any medals from a Winter Olympic Games. The best achievements were two fifth places for freestyler Stanislav Kravchuk (acrobatics) and skier Valentyna Shevchenko (30 km). The biathletes were also disappointing, failing to win a single medal.
The team was the largest in the history of Ukraine’s participation in the Winter Olympic Games as it included the national hockey team, which qualified for the games the first and only time (it came tenth).
The 2006 Olympic Games were held in Turin, Italy. These excellently organized competitions brought a profit of more than EUR 265 million; 80 countries sent teams to Italy - a record for the Winter Olympic Games.
On Feb. 16, the 28-year-old Ukrainian biathlete Liliya Efremova went the distance without any penalties and finished third. She was only 6.6 seconds behind gold medalist Florence Baverel-Robert from France, and 4.2 seconds behind silver medalist Anna-Carin Olofsson from Sweden.
Efremova was born in Cheboksary (Russia). She played for the national team of this country, and in order to get to the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, she moved to the team of Belarus. Since 2003, she represented Ukraine (then the rules allowed for the repeated change of sports citizenship). Sprint is her favorite discipline.
She left the sport in 2010, and now works as a children's coach in Kyiv.
Odesa figure skaters Olena Hrushyna and Ruslan Honcharov announced before their trip to Turin that they were ending their long careers in sports dancing. Their final performance turned out to be excellent: the Ukrainian duet took third place, losing only to the Russians and the Americans.
Since the mid-1990s, Hrushyna and Honcharov had trained in the United States. They got married in 1995, but divorced shortly after winning their Olympic bronze. Olena moved to Moscow, took Russian citizenship and married TV propagandist Mikhail Zelensky (they divorced in 2014).
Ruslan remained in Ukraine, opening a figure skating academy in Brovary.
The XXI Winter Olympic Games were held in Vancouver, Canada. The program of the games was expanded to 86 disciplines, and the number of countries taking part increased to 82.
But it was a most unfortunate Olympics for Ukraine. Ibiathlete Andrii Deryzemlya on the first day of the games had a chance of a medal in the sprint, but finished fifth. No other Ukrainians won any medals.
The Sochi Winter Olympic Games took place amid the backdrop of the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine and the start of Russia's occupation of Crimea. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych attended the opening of the games as the head of state, and as they closed he was already a fugitive.
For the first time, the Winter Olympics were held in the subtropics; there was no snow at all in the Olympic capital. The results of the competition were repeatedly challenged when a Kremlin scam to switch doping samples of Russian athletes became known.
On Feb. 9, 2014, 28-year-old Vita Semerenko from Krasnopillia started in the sprint later than her main competitors. No one could compete in speed with Anastasia Kuzmina (Slovakia) that day, but there was a tense struggle for silver. Semerenko lost by just two seconds to Olga Vilukhina from Russia and came third.
In 2017, as part of an investigation into doping manipulation in Russian sports, the International Olympic Committee annulled Vilukhina's result. The silver medal was supposed to go to Semerenko, but the Russian woman filed a protest – and it was satisfied, so that the top three winners remained as before.
The relay race of biathletes took place the day after the shooting of the Heavenly Hundred in Kyiv. At the award ceremony after the victory, the Ukrainian girls shouted together: “For the Maidan!”
Vita Semerenko did the first stage, finishing third, seven seconds behind the leaders. Yuliia Dzhima shot flawlessly in the second stage, bringing the Ukrainians into the lead. Vita's twin sister, Valentyna Semerenko, was nervous at the second shooting range, and used three extra rounds. However, she got her nerves under control and increased the team's advantage over the Russians. Olena Pidhrushna confidently passed though the final stage, with a 26-second lead over the host team. The second gold of the Winter Olympics was won.
By the way, the Russian national team was later stripped of the silver medal because of the same doping scandal.
As the captain of the Ukrainian team Olena Pidhrushna recalled, the fans in Sochi insulted the Ukrainians throughout the race. “Today we saw how Russian fans rejoiced at the misses of Valia Semerenko, how Russian fans shouted at us along the track, remembering the war, how they shouted “miss, fall” and so on. I ran and did not believe that Russian fans could scream like that ...,” the champion recalls, still outraged.
All participants of the golden Ukrainian relay are continuing their careers.
At the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang (South Korea), for the first time the number of events exceeded one hundred - 102. In the women's hockey tournament, a joint team made up of players from both the South and North Korea competed.
Oleksandr Abramenko, a 29-year-old freestyle skier from Mykolaiv, won a bronze medal for Ukraine.
In the first round of the final of the ski acrobats’ competition, he came third, and in the second round fourth (at this stage, the main favorite Qi Guangpu from China was eliminated). The third and final jump by Abramenko was flawless.
The Ukrainian acrobat outperformed the Chinese Jia Zongyang by only 0.46 points.
“My final jump was the best of the season. Taking it was a big risk, but I managed and, I think, justified not only my own expectations, but also those of the whole of Ukraine,” the winner said, commenting on his performance.
Subsequently, Abramenko got a warm hug from the Russian athlete Ilya Burov, who took third place. In 2021, an interview with the Olympic champion caused a scandal when he expressed doubts about the reality of Russian aggression against Ukraine. He later said that he had been misunderstood.
Abramenko is now preparing for his fifth Olympic Games.
So, in total over eight Winter Olympic Games, Ukrainians have won eight medals – three gold, one silver and four bronze. This puts Ukraine in 28th place in the overall standings.
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