Meet Mykhailo Tkachenko. He's a biathlete, and he's disabled. He's also the bravest man in all of Russia right now.
Tkachenko was the sole athlete representing Ukraine in Friday's opening ceremony of the Paralympics in Sochi. After the rest of his team refused to march in protest of Russia's invasion of Crimea, Tkachenko bore the Ukrainian flag as the crowd in Fisht Stadium showered him with applause.
The moment was at once solemn, tense and heartwarming -- and almost didn't happen. Ukraine seriously considered boycotting the games amid its current turmoil with the host country. Several nations, including the U.S., the U.K., Canada, the Netherlands, Poland, Finland and Austria, decided to pull their government delegations as a statement against Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression. The message was received: Mashable notes that Russia's athletes chose as its marching tune a song by the Soviet-era rock band Nautilus Pompilius titled, "Goodbye America."
Ukrainian Paralympic chief Valeriy Sushkevich ultimately decided to send his team, but reiterated Friday that it would withdraw if Russia invades further. Let's hope it doesn't come to that, both for the sake of world peace as well as the 23 athletes who don't deserve to be additional casualties in this crisis. As the New York Times notes, Ukraine's Paralympic team is expected to put up a strong showing after securing 19 medals at the Vancouver Games in 2010. But Sushkevich believes his country can get more than just hardware from the tournament.
"The Ukranian team, as well as hoping for good results, came with colossal hopes for peace, peace in our country, in Europe, in the world," he said.
The "Peace for Ukraine" slogan has been a signature of recent athletic events, as the sports world tries to do its part to unify the deeply divided country. So Tkachenko marched, a symbol of hope and the picture of courage for a nation in need of both.
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