The shared athlete area where the Ukrainian canoe sprint team has based itself ahead of this weekend’s ICF canoe sprint world cup in Racice is buzzing with activity on Thursday.

A small country flag hangs from the boat rack, with the words “Stop War” scrawled across it. Athletes talk nervously but excitedly, and are constantly being approached by other athletes who stop by to wish them well.

Usually at sporting events political statements are frowned upon. But when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world’s sporting community shares the same revulsion as nearly everyone else. No-one is going to ask the team to remove the flag.

“It’s hard, but we are strong, we are Ukrainian and we are very brave, so we must be strong to compete as a soldier,” Tokyo 2020 Olympian Pavlo Altukhov said on Thursday.

Even before Altukhov takes his place on the starting line he will have scored a major victory, overcoming tremendous odds to send a powerful message to the world that war cannot silence a proud nation.

He is one of a team of nearly 30 who will compete this weekend. Ever since war broke out in their home country they have been living out of suitcases, surviving through the generosity of the international canoeing family.

The Romanian Canoe Federation has led the way, opening its arms and its facilities to the Ukraine canoe sprint team.

“During this hard time in Ukraine, with this Russian aggression, it became very hard to prepare for competition,” Altukhov said.

“We want to say thankyou to the Romanian Canoe Federation for looking after us. We have not been home since February when this all started. Part of my family, and the families of our team, are still in Ukraine.

“It’s hard because we are always thinking about the war, we are always talking with our families. But behind all of that we are trying to be strong, we tried to be here and to compete, because we wanted to say thankyou to everyone because it is very important for us.”

The Ukraine team contains world champions and Olympic medalists. Getting to the Tokyo Olympics, and last year’s ICF world championships, was difficult because of the Covid pandemic.

But it is nothing compared to the journey for Ukraine this year. And if they don’t win this weekend, nobody will be surprised. For Pavlo Altukhov and his teammates, they just want to send a message.

“For sure I am worried about my family. But for now it is okay and I can call them every day,” Altukhov said.

“Please help Ukraine to win this war.”

The donation page to support the Ukrainian athletes can be found here.

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