TOKYO — In American sports terms, the Paralympians of Ukraine are a minor miracle, the Slavic equivalent of the Oakland Athletics.
At the Tokyo Paralympic Games, which ended on Sunday, the Ukrainians finished fifth in the overall medal standings with 98, just six less than the United States. Each of the top four countries — China, Britain, Russia and the United States — had more than 220 athletes in Tokyo, while Ukraine brought in 139.
“It is a small country that is clearly above its weight,” said Craig Spence, the lead spokesman for the International Paralympic Committee.
The success was unmatched by Ukraine’s Olympians, who were 16th in Tokyo’s overall medal standings last month. They won one gold medal, four less than Maksym Krypak, whose seven medals in swimming – five gold, plus one silver and one bronze – made him the most decorated athlete of the Tokyo Paralympic Games.
Ukraine was one of the top six countries in the medal tally at nine consecutive Summer and Winter Paralympic Games, despite consistently being among the poorest countries in Europe and being cited by the United Nations as a difficult home for people with disabilities.
That athletic success has been virtually uninterrupted in recent years, despite Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, effectively cutting Ukraine’s Paralympic contenders off their high-quality training center on the Black Sea. Technically, Ukraine continued to own the center, but Valerii Sushkevich, a longtime MP and the chairman of the country’s Paralympic Commission, said its use proved too complicated.
A new center with the necessary adaptive equipment has not yet been completed in Dnipro, a city in a government-controlled part of eastern Ukraine.
Sushkevich, 67, grew up under Soviet rule, used a wheelchair and became a competitive swimmer despite strong prejudice against public displays by people with disabilities.
“It was not so good for the image of the Soviet Union,” Sushkevich said through an interpreter, recalling that he was actually told, “You have to be outside of this society.”
The Soviets promised to excel in the Olympics but didn’t send athletes to the Paralympic Games until 1988, the last cycle before the country was completely dissolved in 1991.
Ukraine made its first Paralympic appearance as an independent country at the 1996 Atlanta Games, winning just seven medals, equal to Krypak’s total in Tokyo.
But Sushkevich built a program, Invasport, that would locate sports centers for the disabled in each of Ukraine’s two dozen oblasts or administrative divisions, as well as sports schools for children.
“Invasport combined a state system and a non-government system,” he said, and it was meant to get people as active as it is to nurture Paralympics.
But there was a substantial incentive to build a sports career. Without it, people with disabilities would have few livelihood options.
“Before sports I had practically nothing. Actually not practical; literally I had nothing,” Lidiia Solovyova, a two-time Paralympic champion in powerlifting, told the BBC in 2012. “I didn’t have a flat tire. I had no salary. I did not have a good pension. But thanks to sport, I now have all these things.”
Marta Hurtado, a spokeswoman for the UN Human Rights Agency, confirmed that disabled people in Ukraine generally have very limited prospects.
“There is a worryingly high degree of institutionalization of people with disabilities in Ukraine, rather than providing family and community-based services,” she wrote in an email, adding: “Inclusive education for children with disabilities disability remains a rarity rather than the norm, as a result of limited infrastructure and strong negative attitudes in society.”
Oksana Boturchuk, a four-time Paralympic runner who won three silver medals in Tokyo, said she had become a little more recognizable in Ukraine after this year’s release of “Pulse,” a film about her life.
“But in my country the Paralympic athletes are not very popular,” she said. “And everyone is surprised to know who I am. They say, ‘Oh, you’re a Paralympic silver medalist?’”
This summer, Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, visited the country’s Paralympic team prior to his trip to Tokyo and apologized “for the fact that in all those years, not a single president was personally present when sending our Paralympians to both the summer and winter games. ”
Prior to the 2018 Winter Paralympics, there were two substantial changes: live broadcasts of events and an increase in bonus money to match what the Olympians received.
Sushkevich said the reward is about $125,000 for a gold medal, $80,000 for silver and $55,000 for bronze. Previously, he said, prices were about $40,000 for gold, $26,000 for silver and $8,000 for bronze, or about what U.S. Olympians and Paralympians are now receiving.
This summer’s results, Sushkevich admitted, were disappointing compared to the country’s third place (after China and Britain) in the 2016 medal tally, including 41 golds against 24 this year. (The International Paralympic Committee formally ranks teams by gold medals, not overall totals.)
The return of participants from Russia, who were banned in 2016 over revelations about a state-sponsored doping program, almost certainly guaranteed a lower ranking for Ukraine this summer. And Ukraine’s smaller delegation rarely includes competitive entries in sports like wheelchair basketball and rugby or goalball, sports in which the United States accumulates a lot of hardware.
“A lot of people around me told us that in 2016 we had a really good result because we were higher than the US,” said Maxym Nikolenko, a three-time Paralympic athlete who won a gold medal and silver and bronze in Tokyo that year. “I’m sorry,” he added sheepishly, “but they were really proud of that.”
Maria Varenikova contributed from Kiev, Ukraine.