Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

March 19, 2022. The Stark Arena, Belgrade. And the winner of the women’s high jump at the World Athletics Indoor Championships is celebrating with intense, almost fierce joy as she brandishes her national flag - the flag of Ukraine.

That Yaroslava Mahuchikh, at 20, should have become a global gold medallist would not have been a huge surprise in normal circumstances, given that she had won world silver and Olympic bronze in the two preceding years.

But it had been no ordinary competition for this rising talent of women’s high jump - or for her few team-mates in the Serbian capital.

Before taking part, Mahuchikh had recalled how, on February 24, she had woken up in her home in Dnipropetrovsk - around 300 miles from Kyiv - to the sound of explosions which confirmed Russia had begun its invasion of her country.

She was forced to flee and headed into the countryside.

At the urging of the Ukrainian Athletics Association she had prepared herself to compete in Belgrade and had been able to do so after arriving following a three-day car journey.

Mahuchikh had called this event her own "front line", and she found the way to achieve the most profound and emotional of victories.

Yaroslava Mahuchikh of Ukraine celebrates winning the world indoor high jump title in Belgrade after making a three-day car journey to escape her war-torn country ©Getty Images
Yaroslava Mahuchikh of Ukraine celebrates winning the world indoor high jump title in Belgrade after making a three-day car journey to escape her war-torn country ©Getty Images

Her failure to clear 1.92 metres first time had hindered her progress to gold on countback, and she was one jump away from bowing out with bronze before she cleared 2.00m at her third attempt and went on to seal victory with what was then a 2022 world-best of 2.02m.

"I didn’t think I was doing it for myself or my medal, I was doing it for all the Ukrainian nation, to show that we are the strongest in the world," said Mahuchikh.

"I want to show Ukrainian people are strong people. They never give up. Our military protect our country at home and today I protect my country on the track.

"Before we went to the field, the only thought in my mind was about Ukraine because too many terrible things have happened there.

"I even doubted that I could jump at all, but my coach said I must go out and perform with the shape and fitness I had before the start of the Russian invasion."

That victorious day was recalled this past week as Yevhen Pronin, President of the Ukrainian Athletic Association, reflected upon what has been a uniquely challenging year after accepting the 2022 President’s Award from World Athletics President Sebastian Coe in Rome on behalf of all involved in the efforts to remain active and competitive.

Asked by insidethegames via a live link how he had responded to Mahuchikh’s victory, Pronin responded: "It was emotional for me, because it was March 19 and the Russian Army was near Kyiv, and I communicated with our soldiers.

"They sent me photos of Yaroslava Mahuchikh. And I asked them, ‘to look at live athletics on the front line, why?’ And they answer me - ‘because it’s like, 99 per cent of news is bad, and of course if you can get one per cent of good news, you must do it."'

Pronin said that in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion his federation held a virtual Board meeting and decided against taking part in international competitions in 2022 because it wasn’t known how Ukrainian athletes and coaches would be able to travel.

But he added: "I then thought about it some more and after three days I felt like our athletes must represent Ukraine across the world, so I went back to our board and asked them to change our decision.

"We had been in a little bit of a panic. But then we decided that our flag must be seen in all the world competitions, and our anthem heard."

The Ukraine Relief Fund, which was launched in April by World Athletics, the International Athletics Foundation and the Diamond League Association, was among the entities that enabled them to see through that intention.

There was help too from European Athletics, which set up a training camp for 60 Ukrainian athletes at the well-appointed Beroe Sports Complex in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria to help them prepare for the Munich 2022 European Athletics Championships. 

European Athletics President Dobromir Karamarinov, who directed the efforts, said at the time: "First and foremost we are glad that we can offer Ukrainian athletes and their families safety and sanctuary in the time of conflict but also offer high level training facilities so they can continue their sporting careers in these dark and distressing times."

Pronin went on: "European Athletics and World Athletics helped us because they set up a Foundation and our athletes were able to be in all the World and European Championships for a year and the Ukraine flag was seen and our anthem was heard.

"And of course our sportsmen and women and officials were able to communicate with mass media and journalists and tell them what was happening in Ukraine.

In introducing Pronin in Rome, Coe mentioned the communication the two of them had had earlier in the year and also gave background to The President's Award, which honours exceptional service to athletics.

Past winners of the award include British journalist Vikki Orvice, Swiss meeting director Andreas Brugger, Jamaican sprint legend Usain Bolt and Kenyan distance runner Tegla Loroupe, who has been active for years training athletes to represent refugee teams at major sporting events.

Jamaica's sprint legend Usain Bolt is among previous winners of the World Athletics President's Award ©Getty Images
Jamaica's sprint legend Usain Bolt is among previous winners of the World Athletics President's Award ©Getty Images

"I created the President’s Award in 2015 when I took up this position, and in the past I’ve given it to individuals who have often served their spot over a lifetime and achieved great things on behalf of athletics.

"This year I decided to do something slightly different because I don’t think I really need to go into huge detail about the Herculean effort that the Ukraine federation has made in keeping its athletes in competition in the most extraordinary and frankly appalling conditions that any sovereign state has witnessed for many years.

"I spoke to Yeven within hours of the illegal invasion of his country and we started a dialogue about what it was we could do immediately to help.

"In response he and his federation have maintained a presence in every World Athletics Series event we’ve had this year and beyond that at the European Championships in Munich at the end of the year."

The day after Mahuchickh earned gold in Belgrade, her team-mate Maryna Bekh-Romanchuk took silver in the women’s triple jump.

At the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon, Mahuchikh again cleared 2.02m, taking silver on countback, and Andriy Protsenko earned bronze in the men’s high jump.

And in the European Championships held as part of Munich 2022, Mahuchikh and Bekh-Romanchuk won gold, with Protsenko adding another bronze and Victoria Tkachuk and Anna Ryzhykova earning silver and bronze respectively in the women’s 400m hurdles.

Mahuchikh went on to win the Diamond League title with a clearance of 2.05m, which tops the year's list.

"It was the jumping of Yaroslava and Maryna that earned two medals, gold and silver in Belgrade," Pronin reflected. "From six persons, two medals!

"And after that I think about how many athletes I must send to international championships. It’s a really good statistic! 

"And after that in Oregon, we get two medals, and in Munich, five medals. Good statistics!

"Maybe we don’t send 65 athletes like before to international championships, we just send six or 10…of course I am joking.

"When we won the medals in Belgrade I was one of the most happy persons in the world.

"When I spoke to Yaroslava beforehand she was crying because she didn’t want to leave Ukraine. But I pressed her to go, and others to go. They spent three or four days getting from Ukraine to Belgrade.

"And they said to me, ‘normally we spend two hours for this journey, now we spend four days! Why must we do it?’ And I said, ‘because you get madder, and get a good result!’ It was good."

Ukraine's Maryna Bekh-Romanchuk celebrates victory in the women's triple jump at the Munich 2022 European Championships ©Getty Images
Ukraine's Maryna Bekh-Romanchuk celebrates victory in the women's triple jump at the Munich 2022 European Championships ©Getty Images

He added: "Our country and our federation are currently at the most difficult stage in our history.

"However, we understand that sport should not only live, it should develop. But it’s difficult to develop. Most of our athletes are based in other parts of Europe at the moment.

"Next year our athletes must compete. But now in Ukraine there is no electricity and there are no stadiums available and there are no places to train.

"Of course we have some territories in the west of Ukraine by the mountains, but I can’t guarantee to my athletes that the Russians will not send rockets into that part of the country.

"Because when they start their rocket attacks they put them in all parts of Ukraine. So I must seek more of a strategy.

"With World Athletics and European Athletics and other sponsors we have started to organise camps in all of Europe. Many of our athletes are now based in Portugal, some are in the United States, we signed a memorandum with Cardiff University and all our sprinters are now situated in Slovakia.

"We have started a project for the relocation of our young talent in the United States on January 12.

"So I understand that we can organise training camps and of course we will compete next season.

"But it’s like 10 persons of our athletes - because it’s just the elite group. Ninety per cent of our athletes stay in Ukraine because it is difficult to get them past the border points. And they do not want to leave their families.

"So it is a problem for us. But I think that in 2023 the war will end with a Ukrainian victory."

Pronin is hoping a new agreement between Cardiff Metropolitan University and Zaporizhzhya Polytechnic designed to help build new research and learning opportunities will lead to further opportunities for Ukrainian athletes to travel and train in the Principality.

The link between the two educational establishments, first developed in July as part of broader efforts to support staff and students affected by the conflict in Ukraine, has been further secured through the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) aimed at developing new opportunities.

Earlier this year the Ukraine men’s 4x100m squad were offered the opportunity to stay on campus for three weeks and use the extensive sports facilities in Cardiff to prepare for the Munich 2022 European Championships.

The Ukrainian men's 4x100m squad prepared for the Munich 2022 European Championships with a three-week stint using the sports facilities of Cardiff Metropolitan University ©Getty Images
The Ukrainian men's 4x100m squad prepared for the Munich 2022 European Championships with a three-week stint using the sports facilities of Cardiff Metropolitan University ©Getty Images

The opportunity arose, Walesonline reports, from a friendship struck up two years ago between Cardiff Athletics sprints coach Gareth Walton, who has been involved in preparing Jeremiah Azu for the British 4 x 100 relay quartet, and Ukraine sprinter Sergiy Basenko at an athletics conference in Moscow.

When they spoke again early this year the plight of the Ukrainian sprinters came to light - some were in Bulgaria and another was in the Czech Republic - and Walton enquired if there was anything Cardiff Met might be able to do to help.

As well as assisting in athletics preparations, the time in Cardiff offered a chance for the athletes to forget the horrors that had been witnessed in their homes in Kiev, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia.

"Being in Cardiff gave us a rest from the situation back home," said one of the sprinters, Oleksandr Sosnovenko. "It has given us the chance to prove our worthiness in the fact we are saved from the war."

Sosnovenko, who had previously competed at the World and European Under-20 Championships, was given the chance to escape to the Czech Republic in April and had been training and racing in Prague.

"My mother is living in Germany with friends and I was invited to go to Prague earlier in the year," he added. "My teammates went to Bulgaria before we all came together in Cardiff."

Speaking of the situation back home, he said: "There are alarms and air attacks every day and you must train while the attacks are going on. You fear for your family and friends and keep wondering if a bomb will crash from the sky."

His 21-year-old team-mate Andrii Vasyliev added: "We are warriors on the track for our country. I feel very proud to be flying the flag for Ukraine and I always get goosebumps on the track waiting for the announcement that says I am representing my country,

"Back home it is impossible to train because the sirens keep going off. Without the help of other countries, it wouldn’t be possible for us to train."

That theme of help and friendship was a thread that went through everything Pronin said in Rome.

"Every time, in Council meetings, in official meetings, unofficial meetings, everyone offers friendship," he said. "We know we have friends all over the world and just after February 24 we understood who they are.

"My mother says that in dark times you see the bright people. And we see the bright people from the athletics family."