No winners among east Ukraine’s war-hit athletes

No winners among east Ukraine’s war-hit athletes

DONETSK, Ukraine - Igor Moiseyev should now be practising karate with a Japanese master on Okinawa Island, but instead the black belt is having to repair his war-damaged gym in Donetsk, east Ukraine.

He is just one of many local athletes and sportsmen hit by the year-long conflict between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces that has left more 6,000 dead.

"In our village, which is two kilometres (over a mile) from Donetsk airport, there is not a single house intact, and our home and our dojo (training place) were hit," explained the karate teacher.

"Before the war, my club was very strong. We won many trophies at world and European championships. Now, due to the military activities, we only have 10 per cent of the students." The self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) that took power in the region last year is not recognised by the international community, making it impossible to compete abroad.

"We try to participate in local competitions to keep the children active," Moiseyev said.

"If parents don't have money to pay for training, we do it for free, despite our running costs." Only the help of colleagues in Russia and the Czech Republic has kept the club's doors open, said Moiseyev, adding that counterparts in Ukraine had offered little support.

"We often went to competitions in Lviv and in the Carpathian Mountains (both in western Ukraine), but no Ukrainian club has offered to help." Basketball player Oleg Golovin, 34, has been training for a year ahead of the EuroBasket 2015 biennial tournament, which was initially meant to take place in Ukraine, but which will now be hosted by France, Croatia, Germany and Latvia in September.

He too revealed frustrations at authorities in Kiev.

"I didn't take any sides when all this political unrest began and took care of my business, developing basketball among children," he explained.

"Ukraine considered attempts to keep my business running as a criminal activity, and now I no longer have any contact with Ukraine," he added.

Strapped for cash

For race car driver Vasyl Kobenok, 28, the unrecognised DNR's exclusion from international sporting bodies is a big problem.

"Even the Russian Automobile Federation has not officially accepted us," he lamented.

But scraping together enough money to buy fuel and get his car on the starting grid is now the biggest challenge facing Kobenok, a past winner in Ukraine.

"Preparing the car has become two to three times more expensive," he said.

"Last year, competing in a rally in Odessa would set us back around 10,000 hryvnias ($425, 392 euros) and now it is between 20,000 and 22,000 hryvnias." But a short stay to take care of his daughter in Crimea - the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in March 2014 - at the height of the fighting in eastern Ukraine has convinced him to stay at home, despite the obstacles.

"Living in Crimea, I realised how difficult it is to live in another state, away from home," he said.

"I will stay in Donetsk and I plan to continue my career here. I want to develop the sport in my hometown, teaching motorsports to children." Equestrian centre director Irma Svetlichnaya has also vowed to stay, despite choosing to take an indefinite break from competition.

"We do not participate in competitions because we don't want the horses to get hurt," she explained. "We don't want them to go through the checkpoints and conflict zones. No medal is worth it.

"All the fields are mined and we also have huge problems getting food for the horses.

"We only survive thanks to caring people," added the 25-year-old, who now spends her time looking after the centre's 26 horses.

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