ROSA KHUTOR - Paralympians set about turning the spotlight on to the sporting action as competition got underway in the Winter Paralympics on Saturday after an opening ceremony overshadowed by Russia 's intervention in Crimea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had opened the Games the night before in Sochi, which lies just southeast across the Black Sea from Ukraine 's peninsula of Crimea which has been seized by pro-Moscow forces. Only one Ukrainian competitor, 37-year-old skier and biathlete Mykhailo Tkachenko, took part in the opening ceremony, in a symbolic protest against Russia 's incursion into Crimea.
"It was a team decision to have one person in the parade. We had a discussion, and he said he wanted to do it," said Oleksandr Onischenko, a translator with the Ukrainian team. "Today I want to talk about sport, about the sports aspect. The team is here to fight for the medals and for a great result. It's not about beating the Russians specifically," he told AFP, as the skiing events got under way.
Russia , which is now one of the world's strongest nations in paralympic winter sports and has high hopes of heading the medals table, started the Games by taking four out of the five golds on offer in the first day's biathlon races.
Medals in the alpine events were more evenly shared out, with Japan's Akira Kano taking gold in the men's sitting downhill and other golds going to athletes from nations ranging from Slovakia to Spain. Meanwhile, the initial match-ups in the ice sledge hockey and the wheelchair curling also got under way. Some two weeks after the Winter Olympic Games wrapped up in Sochi, there was still plenty of snow on the tracks, even if the sides of the hills were now covered with grass and the sound of birdsong gave an atmosphere of spring.
Russian fans in the stands to watch the opening biathlon races were happy to yell in support for both the Russian and the Ukrainian teams. "I worry so much for Ukraine . Yesterday when just one athlete came through the arena during the parade I cried," said Natalia Kazimirova, a Russian fan from Sochi with a Russian flag painted on her cheeks. "I am cheering for both teams, Russia and Ukraine , politics doesn’t matter for me."
Some Western countries, including the United States, Britain and Germany, have not sent government delegations to the Games in protest at Russia 's action in Crimea. Putin had said that he hoped the Paralympic spirit would help "cool the tensions" surrounding Russia 's policy on Ukraine , which has already caused the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War.
Away from the diplomatic crisis, the staging of the Paralympics in Russia for the first time is an event of huge importance for the country. Sergei Shilov, a Russian paralympic cross country skier and six-time champion, who was chosen to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony, said the Paralympics were vital for developing disabled sport in Russia .
"The main thing is to break the stereotypes held by healthy people. The legacy will be an accessible environment for all people. In Soviet times the state policy was that there are no disabled people, and then suddenly they appeared out of nowhere and started demanding attention. Sochi is a catalyst, it will be a rapid jump forwards. It would have happened anyway but would have been slow, would have taken years."
Soviet Russia did not participate in the Paralympic movement until the 1988 Games in Seoul, at the onset of perestroika, and people with disabilities often remained invisible in society, unable to leave their apartments or even being sent to special homes. The stigma against people with disabilities still persists in the country, which only recently began to invest in urban infrastructure that ensures equal access.