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These Ukrainian athletes who dream of Olympic medals despite the war


Spanish photographer Susana Girón spent several weeks with Ukrainian athletes preparing for the Olympic Games, in Catalonia and at the Kontcha-Zaspa training center in kyiv. She captures their dreams and their desire to remind the world of what their country has been experiencing since the Russian invasion in February 2022.

COURRIER INTERNATIONAL: How did you come up with the idea for this report on Ukrainian athletes preparing for the Paris Olympic Games?

Susana Girón: Before devoting myself to documentary photography, many years ago, I studied physical education and sports. And I have always kept this connection with sports. I wanted to work on the situation in Ukraine, looking for a little-covered theme, and since the Paris Olympics are taking place this year, I thought there was a good story to tell about how athletes prepare for this event in a war context.

How did you work?

I started thinking about this topic in the fall of 2023. From the beginning, my idea was to go to Ukraine. I have kept a lot of contacts in the field of sports in Spain, and I learned from a friend that the Ukrainian Olympic rowing team was training from January to April in Catalonia, on Lake Banyoles. This gave another dimension to my project, I did not expect to meet Ukrainian athletes in Spain. I was very lucky, Alyona Chupryna, the coach of the Ukrainian rowing team, lived in Mexico and she speaks perfect Spanish. She invited me to spend time with them in Banyoles, I went there for a week at the end of January.

Then Alyona put me in touch with the director of the Kiev Olympic Center, located in the Kontcha-Zaspa district. From there, I had access to all the logistics I needed: I was able to sleep in a hotel there, they offered me a translator. I spent three weeks there, from the end of February to the beginning of March, among the athletes. I met dozens of them.

What do the Olympics represent for them?

Participating in the Olympic Games is both a privilege and a suffering. They can continue to travel, to train, they are exempted from going to the front, while many of their friends are there, or have been injured, or have died. They have an additional motivation, they are the showcase of Ukraine.

For them, getting on the stage of the Olympics and trying to bring home medals is a way of reminding the world that they feel strong, that Ukraine can win this war, that the world must not forget them and that the West must continue to help them militarily.

What do they think about the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in the Olympic Games under a neutral banner?

For most of them, it deeply bothers them. They would like Russian athletes to be punished for what Russia inflicts on their country, their family, their friends. Finding themselves in a boxing ring or on a tennis court facing an athlete from the aggressor country is very hard to imagine. But for some Ukrainian athletes, if their Russian opponents have publicly denounced the war launched by Putin, they find it fair that they too can participate in the Games.

Interview by Nicolas Coisplet


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Photo Susana Girón

The Kontcha-Zaspa Olympic Center

Ukrainian fencers prepare for the Paris Games qualifiers at the Koncha-Zaspa Olympic Center in February 2024. The center, located in Kiev, has the largest and most important high-level facilities in the country. A state-owned enterprise with a capacity of 350 athletes and technical staff, it has been attended by Ukrainian and foreign athletes since its establishment in 1974.


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Photo Susana Girón

Vlad Slavhorodskiy, physiotherapist

Vlad Slavhorodskiy is the physiotherapist for the national artistic gymnastics team. He is originally from Luhansk, which is now under Russian control. He fled in 2014 with his entire family, except for his father, who chose to stay. “We lost everything we had there. Our home, all our memories. But we are still fine, and that makes me happy. My mother and I settled in Irpin, and we started a new life.”


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Photo Susana Girón

Anastasyia Souperson, judoka

Anastasyia Souperson, 18, one of the great hopes of Ukrainian judo, during a training session at her long-time club in kyiv. When she has free time, she follows online courses at the University of Finance. “My big dream is to compete in the Olympic Games. I was really looking forward to going to Paris this year, but my coach prefers that I wait for the next ones, to gain more experience.”


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Photo Susana Girón

Abandoned sports facilities

The Irpin Athletics Stadium in Kyiv Oblast in March 2024. According to the Ministry of Sports of Ukraine, more than 350 sports facilities have been destroyed or damaged since the beginning of the war. To repair them, an investment of about 250 million euros would be needed. Most of the affected areas are left abandoned, as they were after the bombing.


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Photo Susana Girón

Anastasia Kovalenko, boxer

Anastasia Kovalenko, originally from Artsyz, Odessa region. Together with other members of the Ukrainian boxing team, she was preparing for the qualifying tournaments for the Olympic Games this winter in the Koncha Zaspa center in kyiv.

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Photo Susana Girón

Training in Spain

The Ukrainian rowing team prepared for the Paris Games in the Spanish city of Banyoles from January to April 2024. There, its members were able to escape not only the cold that prevails in Kiev in winter, when it is impossible to row outdoors, but also the additional pressure of daily alerts and the terrible dangers that athletes face when they want to train outdoors.

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Photo Susana Girón

Ukraine tattooed on the body

Ivan Dovhodko (kyiv, 1987), member of the Ukrainian national rowing team. At the beginning of the war, he got the Ukrainian coat of arms tattooed on his left leg. He thinks a lot about his comrades fighting on the front. “For me, it is an additional motivation. By participating in competitions, we remind the public what is happening in Ukraine.”


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Photo Susana Girón

Preparation for kyiv

The Ukrainian rhythmic gymnastics team is preparing in the Koncha-Zaspa Olympic Center in February 2024. A large number of national teams and athletes come here to take part in preparation camps and training sessions. During the months when places for the Paris Games were being played out, young hopefuls in disciplines such as fencing, judo and weightlifting rubbed shoulders with experienced athletes, Olympic champions in athletics, gymnastics and boxing.

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Photo Susana Girón

Volodymyr Kostiouk, gymnast

Volodymyr Kostiouk, Dnipro (2003). Vova, as everyone calls him, started gymnastics at the age of 5. His father enrolled him in their city club so that he could burn off his excess energy. Since then, he has always had the goal of winning a gold medal: “I tattooed it on my skin. It is up to each of us to make our own way. By ourselves. This war will not deprive me of my great dream.”

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