Why Team Ukraine's Presence At Prince Harry's Invictus Games Is Significant

·7-min read
Photo credit: Lukas Schulze - Getty Images
Photo credit: Lukas Schulze - Getty Images

Team Ukraine competitors arrived in the Netherlands last week for the Invictus Games, all while Russian attacks continue in their country. The circumstances made for a difficult and emotional start to the athletes' experience at the Paralympic-style sporting event for war veterans.

While other countries excitedly celebrated the start of the games, which Prince Harry founded in 2014, Team Ukraine manager Oksana Horbach tells BAZAAR.com that being fully present in The Hague has been an 'almost impossible' challenge for her and her teammates.

'For all of us, we are here to compete, but our minds are also with our friends, family, and people at home in Ukraine,' says the 39-year-old, who serves in the Ukraine Armed Forces and just a week ago was supplying meals to servicemen and women in Kyiv. 'But being here is more than competing, we also have an opportunity to speak to the rest of the world and share our stories at a time when there is so much incorrect information on the situation [in Ukraine].'

Photo credit: Aaron Chown/Press Association - PA Images
Photo credit: Aaron Chown/Press Association - PA Images

It's a reason that hasn't gone unnoticed by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who made the sporting event their first work trip to Europe together since stepping away from their royal roles in March 2020. At a welcome reception held by The Hague's U.S. Embassy, Meghan encouraged Horbach to make the most of the global attention the competition receives. 'It's important that you are heard, that you have a voice, that you tell your truth and share your experiences,' the duchess told her. 'You have our support every step of the way.'

The private April 15 gathering was not only a chance for the Ukrainian competitors and their team members to meet with the attending White House delegation, including Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and Senator Tammy Duckworth, but also a chance for competitors and coaches from both countries to reconnect after they first met more than two years ago in Ukraine as part of a joint sporting and recovery program.

'The hardest part was deciding if we should come or not … it was a difficult moral decision,' Horbach says. Indeed, talks on the team's attendance went as far as Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who both urged the Ukrainian military veterans and service people to represent the country.

'[Zelenskyy] said we must have presence here and we would have his full support,' Horbach adds. 'And we need for our stories to be told. … The loss of so many lives, the bombing, the destruction, the rapes, they all continue every day, and a lot of it is being covered up. It is only getting worse and not only threatens us, but also the rest of the world.'

President Zelenskyy's approval is also why five of the Team Ukraine competitors—each who traveled to the Netherlands with a friend or family member—have been granted special leave from the front lines to take part in the games and represent their country.

Pavlo Kovalskyi, 31, who had been part of the military defense operation at the Belarusian–Ukrainian border, tells BAZAAR that their presence at the competition helps send a crucial message to the world, that they're still standing up for their country, and teaches people about the harsh realities of war. 'Being here is also an important mission,' he says. 'We are here to get more support for our country from the rest of the world, for people to understand that the people of Ukraine are peaceful, that we don't like to fight and we don't want this war. Russia has put out a lot of false information, so by us being here, we hope we can fight against that.'

Before the war, Kovalskyi lived in the west of Ukraine and ran a sporting academy for children and military veterans. He also participated in other competitions for wounded veterans, such as America's Warrior Games. In The Hague, he is taking part in a number of events, including archery, rowing, and wheelchair basketball. 'This is a big chance to meet our brothers and sisters from other countries, who are all too familiar with the devastating impact and [atrocities] of war,' he says. 'A lot of refugees from Ukraine are in the countries represented here, and that support is so vital right now.'

At just 19 members, his team arrived in the Netherlands smaller than originally intended. Four members of the Ukrainian Invictus community—including trialist Serhii Karaivan and competitors Vladimir Motelchuk and Sergey Smilin—were killed by Russian attacks in Ukraine. And the team's archery coach, Dmytro Sydoruk, died on April 5 in a tank battle with Russian forces. His presence can be felt at the games, where teammates have been seen holding up the veteran's photo.

Anna-Sofia Puzanova was supposed to be in The Hague to cheer on her aikido coach mother, Yulia Payevska, at the games, but Payevska was taken hostage on March 16 by Russian military in Mariupol, where she was working as a paramedic. So now, Puzanova, 19, is using her time in The Hague to raise awareness about her mother's disappearance. 'I don't know exactly where she is because we don't have any contact with her,' she says. 'I miss her so much, but I am here to make sure her story is heard. There is such little information. We believe she is in Russia now, but we don't know where.'

Photo credit: Aaron Chown/Press Association - PA Images
Photo credit: Aaron Chown/Press Association - PA Images

For the Sussexes, it's stories such as these that make Ukraine's attendance so important. Puzanova—who won bronze in the Novice Recurve Women category of the archery event on Monday—is one of the many members of the Invictus community being filmed this week for Harry's forthcoming Archewell-produced documentary, Heart of Invictus. The stories will feature heavily in the feature-length special, which will be released on Netflix later this year.

In a new interview with the BBC (the official broadcaster of the Invictus Games in the United Kingdom), Harry described the bravery of Ukrainian competitors choosing to attend the games and said that the world stands with them.

'I think what people need to remember … is a vast majority of the Ukraine team were serving in some shape or form,' he said. 'So they removed their uniforms, put their team strips on, jumped on the coach, came over here, slept for a couple of days, tried to decompress, and then were straight into it, and then they've got to go back. So I think to have them here is extraordinary.'

Harry also revealed that Queen Elizabeth II, whom he met in England with Meghan before flying to the Netherlands, has also sent messages of support. 'She had sent plenty of messages … which I've already passed on,' he said. 'So it was great to see her, and I'm sure she would love to be here if she could.'

So far, Team Ukraine has managed to score four medals at the Invictus Games, with many more expected as the competition continues until Friday, April 22. But as the war in Ukraine—which is now in its second month—continues to intensify, any celebrations will be put on hold.

'We will be proud to be representing Ukraine, but this is not the time for celebrating. … Our home is in pain,' Kovalskyi tells BAZAAR. 'I hope that one day we can all celebrate the achievements here alongside peace at home. That is what we are all wishing for.'

After the games conclude, most Team Ukraine members will be back on the front lines, risking their lives to defend their country.

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