At the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, Ukraine won the third most medals.
The result was the best yet for a country that since 1996 has moved up the medals table faster than any country in Paralympic history.
Valeriy Sushkevych helped orchestrate Ukraine’s dramatic rise in Paralympic sport, fighting discrimination toward people with disabilities along the way.
When Sushkevych was a child, he contracted polio. At university, a Soviet official tried to block him from participating in swimming by telling him “disabled people don’t do sport — they belong in hospitals.”
He fought the discrimination and organized a group for swimmers with disabilities at university. They were given one lane in the pool after 9 p.m. so nobody would see them.
Ukraine officially declared its independence in 1991. Shortly after, Sushkevych founded and became president of the Ukrainian Paralympic Committee.
Ukraine won its first-ever Paralympic gold medal at the Games in Atlanta in 1996. At the next Summer Games in Sydney, the team won 37 medals, including three gold.
“The Sydney results were a real shock to Ukraine society,” Sushkevych says. “People were like ‘are these really disabled people? These champions do not have legs or arms?'”
After Sydney, the president invited them to the Presidential Palace and encouraged the country’s leaders to allocate more resources to the Paralympics.
Government goes all in
Soon after, a state-of-the-art high performance training centre for Paralympic sports was built on the Black Sea in Crimea.
It has gyms, football fields, two 50-metre Olympic pools and more.
“It’s very special and unique,” Sushkevych says. “Top Paralympians trained there, plus it featured a centre for children and others who need rehabilitation through Paralympic sport.”
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In addition, they created programs to introduce sports to thousands of youth with disabilities around Ukraine.
“Our unique system of Paralympic sport development … combined with the training centre in Crimea is a big reason we became a world power,” he says.
Effects of Chernobyl
This success would have been difficult to imagine after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.
Then, the Soviet Union controlled Ukraine and tried to block news from leaking out about Chernobyl.
Even today, organizations like Chernobyl Children International, which provides medical assistance to children impacted in the area, says it is impossible to know the exact impact all that exposure to radiation had on people in the area.
“We don’t have stats for Ukraine disability levels, I’m afraid, because so much information was lost from Chernobyl following the break-up of the USSR,” says Adi Roche, the organization’s CEO.
Roche says her organization has developed a cardiac program for Ukraine and its neighbour Belarus as a direct response to a condition coined by Ukrainian cardiologists as ‘Chernobyl Heart’.
“The heart has been identified as the organ most vulnerable to the effects of radiation,” she says. “Through this program, we’ve helped save the lives of over 4,000 children who suffer from a marked increase in cardiac birth defects since the Chernobyl disaster.”
A star is born
Oksana Masters won two gold medals in cross-country skiing at the 2018 Paralympics in Pyeongchang. She’s now attempting to qualify in hand cycling for Tokyo 2020.
Born in Ukraine in 1989, Masters was put up for adoption after it was discovered the birth defects she suffered would require years of medical support.
Masters, who now competes for the U.S., outlines the impact Chernobyl had on her website.
“The radiation had interesting effects on my development in-utero. I was born an otherwise healthy baby but had significant birth defects to my limbs and a few of my organs. I was born with six toes on each foot, five webbed fingers on each hand and no thumbs. My left leg was six inches shorter than my right one and both of my legs were missing weight-bearing bones.”
Overcoming more adversity
Back in Ukraine today, Sushkevych and his team have hit another hurdle on their journey to Tokyo 2020.
But with Russia annexing the Crimea in 2014, the centre is no longer available for Ukraine.
“It’s tragic for us, but it’s a reality,” Sushkevych says.
He says Ukraine will have to show its resilience like it did after Chernobyl.
They’re now building a new rehabilitation and sports centre in Dnipro city (formerly known as Dnipropetrovsk), the industrial city where the Soviet Union used to launch its spaceships.
Sushkevych says there have been many hurdles, but Ukrainian athletes’ victories in Paralympic sport paved the way for legislation in the country that recognizes the human rights of people with disabilities.
“I’m proud that we changed our country by means of victories of our Paralympic family. We changed the spirit and consciousness of our society.”