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How sport can create peace even in war

Yaroslava Mahuchich is the world indoor champion in women’s high jump.

She is also currently a refugee from Ukraine and lives and trains in Germany during the athletics season.

To the Olympic day 2022 on June 23 with the theme #MoveForPeaceIn an exclusive interview with Olympics.com, the Dnipro native spoke about trying to promote peace in her country through sport.

“Be kinder to everyone because sport connects, sport helps and athletes help each other,” says Mahuchikh.

“Everyone sticks together at the Olympic Games. The Olympic Village gathers people from all countries. The Olympic Games certainly unite people. It always has, it does now and it will continue to do so in the future,” she adds.

Ukrainian athletes fled to train

Mahuchikh’s triumph at the 2022 World Indoor Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, came three weeks after attacking her home country.

The invasion disrupted the Olympic bronze medalist’s training. “It was very difficult, we moved to Khmelnytskyi first,” Mahuchikh recalls the first days after February 24, when the world changed for her and her Ukrainian compatriots.

“There was the training camp for our small national team that was going to the (indoor) championships. In the middle of our trip we were told to go to the border.

“Our trip lasted three days. In the end we reached Serbia and started training with no sirens and no bang.”

Mahuchikh knew she wouldn’t be home for a while: “The most difficult moment was saying goodbye to my family, my father,” she recalls.

“But then you realize that you have to compete, represent your country at international level and show that Ukraine is still there.”

It wasn’t an easy journey for the high jumper, both in terms of duration and the thoughts running through her mind. She admits questioning herself during the long drive away from danger.

“I had a lot of thoughts about why I was leaving,” says Mahuchikh. “I (had) just started providing humanitarian aid. (But) I understood, in Dnipro we had a lot of volunteers because it was (at that time) a relatively safe region. Our city got together and helped a lot.

“And I thought about why I should go to the world championships and that I would jump. Then I understood that this is my field of work. This is my sector, I have to defend my country in my area and (at this point) I realized that people doing their jobs are helping their country with everything they can do in each of their areas.”

A family separated

Mahuchikh has not been home since leaving Ukraine ahead of the World Indoor Championships in March. She competed in the Diamond League this season while based in Erlangen, Germany with the help of her sponsors.

“They helped and gave us apartments,” she says. “My mother, my sister and their daughter were there.”

The Ukrainian also paid tribute to the various international and national sports federations that helped her country’s athletes find new training bases during the war and welcomed them with open arms.

But, she says, “my home was and still is in Ukraine, in Dnipro – my city, my apartment.”

Dnipro in central-eastern Ukraine is now near the front lines of the conflict. “In Dnipro, many people stayed at home,” says Mahuchikh. “Some are in Poland

“Of course everyone wants to go home. I was talking to my sister the other day. I told her I wanted to go back home, to get back to normal life, to live without the sirens.

“But she reads the stories of those who come back from Poland. They want to do it but it’s still not safe because even now rockets are exploding in my city.”

Mahuchikh brings “smiles and joy” to Ukraine

The triumph in Belgrade had a very welcome consequence – the attention a world champion enjoys and several opportunities for her to talk about the situation at home. It also had the added bonus of giving their countrymen a morale boost.

“In the face of all the bad information, people would hear good news and could smile. And I made it because people thanked me for bringing them smiles and happiness,” Mahuchikh recalled. “After the competition I took part in press conferences and even before that I drove through the mixed zone. As a winner, of course, you get more media attention than a silver or bronze medalist. That was an additional motivation.

“You know that in the competitions you can get a result and then talk to journalists and they will publish it. After the event in Serbia I had so many interview requests. I can help on a sporting level through my results, which gives me the opportunity to speak to the media.

“(I want people to know that we are a very strong nation that has been through a lot and suffered a lot in the history of Ukraine. But I know that we are strong and we will survive everything. We just have to hold on to ourselves believe.”

Sport connects

Most importantly, Mahuchikh remains convinced that sport can promote peace – whether by raising awareness of the situation in Ukraine and other conflict zones, or simply by bringing people together.

“Sport shows the good qualities of men and women in all areas of life: their strong character, their will to endure to the end, no matter what.

“For me, the Olympic Games unite all countries. The Olympic Games help the world. It is always broadcast in all countries and even people who are not sports fans watch the Olympics. This is something incredible.”

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